Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Whenever a One Hundred Greatest Albums of All Time list is compiled, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks almost always features in the top five.
To many, it seems a strange inclusion. In comparison to other groundbreaking artists, Astral Weeks has never been embraced by a broad range of people and in some respects lacks the elements that provide universal appeal. For the minority who have developed a relationship with the album, it is an inexcusable contender.
In the summer of 1968 Van Morrison, at the age of 22, recorded Astral Weeks in New York over a period of a weekend and with session musicians he knew only fleetingly. Astral Weeks embodies Van Morrison’s distinctive amalgam of folksy-blues, jazz and northern soul combined with his often-spiritual lyrics and vocal-lines used like a mantra. But what makes Astral Weeks so special is it was recorded live from start to finish. Each song was done in one take, with minimal post-production and no pre-rehearsal. Van dictates the flow of the songs through his vocals and the musicians fill in when required.
This is a familiar arrangement for many musicians. Astral Weeks is essentially a recorded jamming session and, considering the potential to create a bland and disharmonious mess, it is endlessly remarkable how formed and polished the album is. It is almost as if Van Morrison suddenly became an expert in the field of telepathy, and has managed to create the musical equivalent of a stream of consciousness. In a recent interview Van said:
“The songs were somewhat channelled works…from another sort of place.”
As a result, Astral Weeks has a sense of immediacy and spontaneity that is unparalleled in any other album. It succeeded in capturing a period of such intense and uninterrupted creativity that it seemed safe to claim that Van could and would never try and recreate it. He has continued to create prodigiously, producing around one album every 18 months for the last 40 years. He has, however, reached a comfort zone over the last decade though, and it is fair to say he took everyone by surprise when he announced he would be performing a one-off gig at the Hollywood Bowl in New York. He intended to play Astral Weeks again, from start to finish and with the same session musicians, for the first time since the original recording.
Live at the Hollywood Bowl has a new string arrangement and rhythm section and Van allows the songs to meld into new, often elongated forms. His reinterpretation of the original songs, and the way he sings them with a voice that is so radically different from back in the 60’s, lends the album an overwhelming sense of self-reflection. One gets the feeling that Van is addressing the boy that made that record all those years ago, and to the man it helped him become. From the opening title track when he sings, “I believe I have transcended,” you realise you’re in for a wonderful, intimate insight into a true artist. Building to a crescendo with The Way Young Lovers Do, you cannot help but congratulate the man and the boy.