Astral Weeks is generally considered one of the best albums in pop music history, but for all that renown, it is anything but an archetypal rock & roll album. It it isn't a rock & roll album at all. Van Morrison plays acoustic guitar and sings in his elastic, bluesy, soulful voice, accompanied by crack group of jazz studio players: guitarist Jay Berliner, upright bassist Richard Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, vibraphonist Warren Smith and soprano saxophonist John Payne (also credited on flute, though that's debatable -- some claim an anonymous flutist provided those parts). Producer Lewis Merenstein added chamber orchestrations later and divided the album into halves: "In The Beginning" and "Afterwards" with four tunes under each heading. Morrison's songs are an instinctive, organic mixture of Celtic folk, blues, and jazz. He fully enters the mystic here, more in the moment than he ever would be again in a recording studio. If his pop hit "Brown-Eyed Girl" was the first place he explored the "previous" -- i.e., the depths of his memory -- for inspiration and direction, he immerses himself in it here. The freewheeling, loose feel adds to the intimacy and immediacy in the songs. They are, for the most part, extended, incantatory, loosely narrative, and poetic ruminations on his Belfast upbringing: its characters, shops, streets, alleys, and sidewalks, all framed by the innocence and passage of that era. Morrison seems hypnotized by his subjects; they comfort and haunt a present filled with inexhaustible longing and loneliness. He confesses as much in the title track: "If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream/Where immobile steel rims crack/And the ditch in the back roads stop/ Could you find me?/Would you kiss-a my eyes/...To be born again...." Morrison doesn't reach out to the listener, but goes deep inside himself to excavate and explore. The album's centerpiece is "Madame George," a stream-of-consciousness narrative of personal psychological and spiritual archetypes deeply influenced by the road novels of Jack Kerouac. The climactic epiphany experienced on "Cyprus Avenue" paints a portrait of place and time so vividly, it fools listeners into the experience of shared -- but mythical -- memory. "The Way Young Lovers Do" is the most fully formed tune here. Its swinging jazz verses and tight rhythmic choruses underscore a simmering, passionate eroticism in Morrison's lyric and delivery. Astral Weeks is a justified entry in pop music's pantheon. It is unlike any record before or since; it mixes together the very best of postwar popular music in an emotional outpouring cast in delicate, subtle musical structures.
Astral Weeks Review
by William Ruhlmann