Whenever Pandora brings a Van Morrison song up on one of my stations, the first line in the “artist description” box reads “Equal parts blue-eyed soul shouter and wild-eyed poet-sorcerer, Van Morrison is among popular music’s true innovators…”
I couldn’t agree more. The man who became a household name with “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Domino,” also gave birth to one of the most beautifully bizarre albums in history: 1969’s Astral Weeks. The story goes that Van went into the sessions with just lyrics and a backing band made up mostly of jazz players. They improvised the songs right there and put them on tape.
What resulted is an album that I didn’t understand the first time I heard it when I was sixteen. It was a dense, inaccessible mass of weird guitar parts, strange time signatures and impressionistic lyrics, and it was the first piece of music that truly stumped me. It was only after repeated listenings, many on starry summer nights, that I finally grasped where the beauty of this album lay.
I’ve always though that Van Morrison is more of a conduit than a singer. Normal people make conscious decisions about what notes to sing and for how long, while Van sounds like he taps into a current of music that consumes and possesses him for the length of the song. Part of the appeal of a typical Van Morrison song, like “Jackie Wilson Said,” is that the band that backs him is rock solid, providing a nice counterpoint to the singer’s delivery.
On Astral Weeks, however, the band is as daring in their playing as Morrison is with his singing. The interplay between singer and ensemble feels so delicate that it could break down at any minute–there’s nothing to ground the performances. It’s incredibly daring and emotional, which is why Astral Weeks deserves to be the first Album of the Week.