Aged 23, and with the experiences of Them and Bang Records behind him, Van Morrison launched his solo career proper with 1968’s Astral Weeks, pursuing a sound that’s as much based in jazz as it is in rock. Morrison originally intended Astral Weeks as a rock opera, and there are strands of common narrative and places running through the songs.
Morrison credits producer Lewis Merenstein with the final shape and presentation of Astral Weeks, and interviewed in 1970 he claimed that he wouldn’t have used the jazz players that Merenstein recruited for every track. The jazz musicians, notably bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner, fill the album with improvisation, as do Morrison’s uniquely exploratory vocals, making Astral Weeks one of the least scripted albums in the rock canon. The only full band arrangement is the excellent, if somewhat out of place, ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. The rest of the songs are devoid of drums and outside the verse/chorus structure, dreamy and free flowing, and right on the extreme boundaries of the rock music umbrella.
The eight tracks can be divided into two equal categories – four shorter and more accessible pieces, all quite different in character, and four longer epics which are all similar in feel. Of the four shorter pieces, ‘Beside You’ is arguably the album’s weakest point, with Morrison’s over-emoting over a vague structure, particularly over the lines “You breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out you breath in”, one of the few times where his normally gorgeous vocals are annoying. On the other hand, the pretty ‘Sweet Thing’ is probably the album’s most accessible piece, closely followed by the punchier ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’, but the closing ‘Slim Slow Slider’ is disappointingly uneventful.
It’s the four longer tracks that provide the tone of the album, all slowly unwinding; even if they’re a bit too samey for me to really love this album in the same way that many other fans do, they do have a unique flavour all of their own. Of the four, my favourite is the opening ‘Astral Weeks’, which has a pure spirituality and freshness that probably benefits from being placed first on the album. However ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and ‘Madame George’ are also excellent, and ‘Ballerina’ is the only song that really drags.
Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anyone Van Morrison or anyone else has created, and for adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. Although Morrison arguably balanced jazzy exploration with more accessible work on subsequent albums like St. Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece, Astral Weeks is his most extreme statement which alone makes it essential as a unique effort in the canon of popular music.