My current fave Sunday-morning-coming-down album, Van’s transcendental 1968 masterwork still holds its secrets all these years later. The converted need no further preaching about Astral Weeks, so it’s the uninitiated I’m reaching out to here. First you need to dispense with the image of Van as the largely irrelevant pot-bellied sourpuss we know today. Flash back to Belfast in the mid-’60s: Van is winding down his tenure as blues shouter for Them — a roughneck collective of bruising whiteboy R&B and flame-throwing garage-punk snarl — ready to make the leap from drunk-up wailer to cosmic poet-seeker. Legend has it that Van laid down these songs with just his voice and acoustic guitar like one of those paint-by- numbers sketches, and that a team of crack session men fingerpainted in all the breezy jazz-blues swirl and Celtic-soul sorcery afterward–which, if true, is all the more astonishing given how symbiotic and intuitive everything sounds. What any of it means is almost beside the point. The closest analog is the luminous ambiguity of James Joyce’s Ulysses in that Van was trying to evoke feelings and visions–tar-black blues and red wine ecstasies–that transcend literal meaning on their way to higher altitudes. — JONATHAN VALANIA
SOUND OPINIONS: Van Morrison recorded and released his masterpiece Astral Weeks 45 years ago, and to celebrate Jim and Greg conduct a Sound Opinions Classic Album Dissection. Astral Weeks didn’t produce huge hits, but as Jim and Greg explain, this record is unique from any other in Van Morrison’s collection, and in fact, in rock history. It melds rock, blues, folk and jazz in such a way that makes it hard to define. The jazz musicians who contributed to this sound were guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay and bassist Richard Davis. But, in addition to the music, Jim and Greg both marvel at the emotions conveyed by the songs on Astral Weeks. You hear Van Morrison struggle with the search for home and the impermanence of life. It’s as much a poem as it is an album, making it a classic in the Sound Opinions’ book. MORE
CHICAGO TRIBUNE: No work in Morrison’s canon — or in the rock lexicon, for that matter — sounds quite like Astral Weeks. Forty-one years after its release it still occupies its own world. It was never meant to be a rock album. Nor is it quite jazz either, even though a bunch of accomplished jazz musicians play on it. It’s not readily identifiable as the blues and R&B that Morrison revered as a youth. It’s steeped in the spirit of Irish poetry, but more in how it is sung rather than in how the words scan or what they mean.
The album produced no radio hits to rival Morrison’s best known songs, such as “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Domino,” “Wild Night” and “Moondance.” And it has been outsold by several Morrison albums. But it has never gone out of print, and it continues to hold an almost sanctified place in the history of popular music. It consistently appears on lists extolling the top albums of all time and it has been dissected and praised by discerning music listeners for decades. More significantly, it is an album that Morrison himself has never topped. The album arrived at a crucial time in Morrison’s transformation from the R&B shouter who fronted the Irish garage-rock band Them to the solo artist who chased his muse “into the mystic” and defined Celtic soul. MORE