In 1968, Van Morrison was 22 years old and one album down, a Northern Irishman in New York, with a fledgling career built on garage rock, TB Sheets and Brown Eyed Girls. He was also involved in a contract dispute with his label, Bang Records, that prevented him from recording, and discouraged live venues from booking him.
In many ways Astral Weeks was born out of this frustration, and the accompanying financial anxiety, although little of that desperation seeps into the record; it is an album that sounds warm and rich and luxurious, and the urgency that runs through its eight songs has always seemed tethered to Morrison's desire to articulate something – a longing, a desire, an essence.
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This is an album heavy with yearning, with an aching for the streets of Belfast, for the "gardens all misty and wet with rain", for being "conquered in a car seat". It marries folk and rock and blues and jazz and gospel, flute, harpsichord, vibraphone – to create these eight songs that don't so much play as wrap themselves around your legs, that get stuck beneath your fingernails.
Morrison himself described Astral Weeks as an opera of sorts, a story with definite characters, a song-cycle of "poetry and mythical musings channelled from my imagination". And so we find memories of viaducts and slipstreams, ferry boats and cadillacs and cherry wine, mingling with talk of Huddie Ledbetter and little red shoes. We find the bewitching Madame George, the ecstatic Sweet Thing, the great knee-deep tangle of reminiscence that made up Cyprus Avenue. It was one of those albums that seemed to be about everything and nothing, the past and the now, the vital and the fleeting, and that somehow stood quite complete in its vision.
It was Lester Bangs who put it best: "Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralysed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend," he wrote. "Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment's knowledge of the miracle of life."
It baffled many upon its release, listeners thrown by its strange rhythms and peculiar lyrics, but over the following decades it would acquire towering cult status. Much of this is down to this record's remarkable ability to prompt an overwhelming emotional response – the album's producer, Lewis Merenstein, has described how, upon hearing the title track, he began crying. "It just vibrated in my soul," he said.
This is an album I grew up with, and that embodies everything I love about Morrison's work – the great rich stew of it, the beguiling swarm of the music, lyrics that are proved on the pulses, a voice that sounds like rain against granite – dour and swarthy and half-grunted, barking and nickering its way through the "clicking, clacking of the high-heeled shoe". It stands to me as a masterpiece, a maverick, a quite extraordinary creation.
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