Saturday, 21 March 2015

“WHEN YOU FALL INTO A TRANCE”: VAN MORRISON'S 'ASTRAL WEEKS'


Another in my (highly) irregular series on my top 50 albums

”I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
- Sebastian from 'Brideshead Revisited'

”With a childlike vision leaping into view...”

Journey with me now back to 1968. And there's two big ideas in popular music. Post 'Sergeant Pepper', music has started to grow - becoming bigger, more grandiose, more important. The length of time an album took to record, the sum total of equipment the band possessed, such things were becoming vital forms of currency. Also, reflecting the tumultuous events of its time, the growing social and political upheavals, its becoming more politically charged. Why not succumb to that music journo cliché where everything is supposedly summed up by a song title? There was, to quote Thunderclap Newman, 'Something In the Air'. Okay, that wasn't actually released until the following year. The point still stands. In 1968 even the Beatles, the very epitome of love-in hippies, had started singing about revolution.

Though Van Morrison had already released one solo album (which he later claimed had come out against his wishes), he was then chiefly known for the urgent R+B hits he'd clocked up with Them. A band who had influenced much of the then-current wave of music. The Doors' Jim Morrison, for example, had all but studied his namesake. So of course, ever the contrarian, Van took all this as his cue to completely ignore everything set out above and release a languid folk album - flutes in place of electric guitars and harmoniums replacing mellotrons. 'Sergeant Pepper' has taken a record-breaking six months to record. 'Astral Weeks' was laid down in three short sessions. And they didn't bother using anything from the middle one.

Perhaps only Bob Dylan rivalled the reckless perversity in bucking trends, when in the previous December he'd released the country album 'John Wesley Harding'. But there's a crucial distinction. As recounted previously, Dylan took refuge from the antagonisms of his previous patented “me/you” songwriting by escaping into a collectivised American folklore. It was an album borne of his desire to not look or sound like Bob Dylan any more, or even particularly answer to his own name. Whereas Morrison's reminiscences of his Belfast youth were simultaneously highly personal and absolutely universal.

While notable exceptions apply, the new 'progressive' music was for the main part simply standard rock fare with knobs on. With the inevitable result that most of the knobs fell off as soon as they were tried. 'Astral Weeks' was and remains beyond all that.

Compare it to visual art for a moment. If Faust were an artwork they'd be a Dadaist collage, Wire a Bauhaus diagram. 'Astral Weeks' would be a piece of folk or naïve art. And like much naïve art the album has an apparent freshness and simplicity. Only once inside do you realise how easily you can get lost in there.

Listen closely to any track you choose and beneath the languid surface you find something incredibly rich and sophisticated. What almost invariably starts off as a simple little folk ditty soon spawns a multiplicity of instruments. Instruments which don't just play along with one another but take off in entirely unexpected directions, while somehow retaining their harmoniousness when they should by any odds collapse into chaos. (The overlay picture on the cover is perhaps a perfect visual representation of the music.) Morrison has described the album as “just folk music incorporating jazz” and much of this effect seems to have been achieved merely by enlisting jazz musicians to play folk. It results in a double-plus trade-off where the folk stops the jazzing getting too noodly, while the jazz makes the folk richer than just straightforward.

Yet the surface is as important as the substance, the jazz needs the folk as much as the other way around. Its vital that it all feels so immediate, so organic and spontaneous. While you listen you can't imagine it being composed, arranged or produced, you can't separate it back out into its constituent parts of lyrics and instrumentation. It feels like the music somehow just appeared the way we hear it now, simply leapt into view, was cut from whole cloth.

Which I long assumed to be a smart illusion. Like Dolly Parton claiming “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, I was smart enough to know it must have taken considerable time and effort to achieve that spontaneous sound. As it happens, it seems they achieved it through... well, spontaneity. Though he'd taken a year to write all the songs (during an impasse where he lacked a record contract), Morrison hadn't met many of the musicians before recording began. And when they all showed up, he simply told them to play what they wanted then vanished off into the singer booth. So casual were the arrangements that to this day the flautist on many of the tracks is unknown.

The album I most associate with 'Astral Weeks' in its effect, in the way it works on you is one it has absolutely nothing in common with otherwise, stylistically or thematically – Patti Smith's 'Horses'. Both induce a fugue state. Its not a matter of what the singer is singing, the guitar is strumming or the drummer is drumming. It's all of those things at once, ganging up on your attention, overwhelming you until your senses can only surrender and be swept along. Compare the hypnotic repetition of simple phrases, “way up on, way up on” from 'Madame George' to “go up, go up, go-up go-up” on 'Birdland'. But while 'Horses' is vibrant and convulsive, seizing at your ears, 'Astral Weeks' is beguiling. It lulls you into its world.

People are wont to argue that good song lyrics are akin to poetry, and so measure them by how well they stand on their own terms. Whereas Morrison's impressionistic flow of lyrics could never be prised apart from the music they go with. Which is why they go with the music. Its like asking if the front wall of my house would stay up if you took the other walls away. I've no interest in finding out, I like my house the way it is.

Certainly, the lyrics can be given to poetic flights. Things open, after all, with the couplet “If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dream”. But its the simpler phrases which linger the longest. Take the classic line from 'Sweet Thing', “I will drink the clear, clean water for to quench my thirst”. At numerous points things slip into a childlike perspective, the innocent anthropomorphism of windows rapping or music dancing.

And Morrison is as happy with the mundane (“Kids outside collecting bottle tops/ Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops”). With memories, the minutiae of the detail – the shape of the room, the wallpaper, the time of day – are just a tag for the real substance, a thread leading you to the way the whole thing felt. This is what Waugh (via Sebastian) means in the quote up top, in his comparison of memories to treasure maps.

Which tends to the untranslatable. The surface details of my youth, which would trigger such resonances for me, would seem without significance for you. The tag would be unattached to the thread. But put together with the vocal delivery and the music, they become like biting into that Proustian cake. It's like a spell falling on you, like accessing memories you never had.

The result is an album fit to induce synaesthesia. Basslines snake along long numbers, curving like country lanes. The shimmer of strings on the title track calls up the sparkle of the summer sea, the jaunty swoops of the flute like brightly coloured bobbing sailboats, the harmonium on 'Cyprus Avenue' evokes the golden glow of late afternoon.

”Another Time, Another Place...”

'Rolling Stone' have commented of 'Astral Weeks': “it was instantly recognized as one of the rare albums for which the word timeless is not only appropriate but inescapable”. And indeed it's timeless in both senses of the word. In the already-mentioned sense of not being tied to its era, but instead following more universal themes. But also in the sense of taking time as being ours to play with.

To get to the heart of 'Astral Weeks', you need to compare it to an earlier Dylan track - 'Bob Dylan's Dream'. Dylan sings plaintively of the room he spent so much youthful time in, knowing that he'll never be able to step back inside it. Whereas 'Astral Weeks' is 'Bob Dylan's Dream' inside out. Hartley called the past another country. But that's no reason not to move there. Morrison contends that you can go home again, and that music can be the spell that takes you.

Here's a bluffer's tip. When talking about 'Astral Weeks', mention the German word heimat, which fuses together 'home', 'source' and 'belonging'. Its the idea that we are formed by primary relationships, with people and with places.'Astral Weeks' portrays Belfast as heimat.

And the fact that the title track is in many ways a gospel number, mentioning “I got a home on high... way up in the heaven”, merely compounds this. What heimat and heaven have in common is that they're source places, they're where we were made the way we are. (Though the phrase “to be born again” might not have had the same associations when written. Stemming from the Bible, it would probably still have been seen as a religious phrase. But it's association with right-wing evangelism mostly dates from Chuck Colson's 1976 book of the same name.)


People are wont to to tell you 'Astral Weeks' is Blakean. Me, I find the notion fanciful. They're as wont to see it as Edenic, and there I think they're on the money. 'Sweet Thing' is, after all, about nothing other than two lovers in an idyllic garden. There's the repeated references to being beyond thought. Perhaps the epitome of the mood is the way Morrison sings the line “to dig it all and not to wonder”. In the (in many ways splendid) cover by the Waterboys, Mike Scott sings the line hopefully - as though that's the life he wants to be living. Whereas Morrison sings the line as if that's what he's doing right now. (And I say that as a huge Waterboys fan.)

Brian Hogg makes a vital point - “the strength of 'Astral Weeks' is not held in individual tracks, instead it comes from its cumulative air of passion and mystery.” ('Strange Things Are Happening' 4, 1988) Which is correct, but relies on a different definition of 'cumulative' than 'beginning to end'.

Popular music comes from popular culture, and frequently you have to think yourself back into its era before you can fully appreciate it. Yet as 'Astral Weeks' breaks all those rules perhaps its not surprising that the ideal way to hear the album didn't come about until years after it was released – on rotation. It's a song cycle which doesn't run through but loops endlessly, from the dying ex-lover on 'Silm Slow Slider' to the refrain “to be born again” on the title track. And you inevitably find you can quite happily listen to it repeatedly. In the words of the song, you'll always be “caught one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue”.

And, as if to prove that point, let's look at individual tracks by starting off with the closing number...

”Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world”

Some albums come with their own get-out clause, making one track the antidote to everything else, such as 'Malibu' from Hole's 'Celebrity Skin'. 'Astral Weeks' conversely is an album built as an an antidote to one track, which then gives that track the last word by making it the album's closer. With its mournful sax refrain, seemingly floating above and beyond the rest of the number, 'Slim Slow Slider' is as hauntingly empty as the rest of the album is rich and golden. Notably it's the only track to name a place outside of Belfast – Ladbroke Grove in London, the big city. (Though Morrison was resident in America when the album was made. And perhaps he even needed that distance from it all.)

Equally notably, its the shortest track on the album. (Unless you count 'Like Young Lovers Do'. Which we don't.) Compared to what has come before, its almost abrupt. “You're out of reach” is the chilling counter to the eloquent flow of lines like “the love that loves to love”. (And note how 'Madame George' featured “throwing pennies”, whereas here its “catching pebbles for some sandy beach”.) It's like grits in the bottom of the glass.

And yet of course its Morrison seeing his old flame in the street (“with your brand new boy and your Cadillac”) that starts the song cycle, that unleashes the flow of memories that make up the album. Which is where the album starts...

The shimmering flux of the title track is one of those songs which acts like a spell upon you, kissing our eyes back into seeing, taking us back to “another time, another place” like the visual conceit of films going wibbly to signify flashback mode. Having quoted 'Brideshead Revisited' once already, this is how an older, more weary-wise Charles reacts to suddenly re-hearing it's name:

“On the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless... for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”

Typically, the line “nothing but a stranger in this world” doesn't really register until you've heard the cycle through, and realise Morrison is opposing the contemporary world of Ladbroke Grove with his youthful memories of Belfast, that “this world” he's so outside is our world.

After all this metaphysical flying through time we find ourselves in a child's bedroom. But not for long, because “Little Jimmy's gone/ Way out of the backstreet/ Out of the window/ Through the fallin' rain...”

That unused session mentioned earlier was the only one which didn't take place in the late afternoon. And the whole album has that unhurried pace, as if the bustle of the day was all behind you. But only 'Beside You' is set in that twilight time. It's an account of a child starting to explore the world around him, discovering the streets that surround his home as a way of finding out about himself. New instruments continue to strike up, like further features of this new world appearing. Such vivid descriptions of Little Jimmy's explorations (slipping from “he” to “you” as the song goes on) may initially seem at a remove from the title-supplying chorus, which is more a simple love song that a protective parent may sing to a child. In one the child is tucked up safely at night, in the other he's absent without official leave. But it's through that juxtaposition that the song draws its meaning.

It's the benevolent paradox of childhood, as summed up in the joining line “you turn around and I'm beside you”. You can slip your parent's hand and run off, secure in the knowledge that at some point your parent will come along and find you. You know they have the same limited physical existence as you, that pushing open the window and sneaking out works when they're not there to see and stop you. But still your young mind ascribes to them some vague sense of omnipotence. They won't so much look for you as know. I'm of the generation where religion was a fixed part of the school curriculum. And, while children are of course credulous by nature, its worth noting how easily it is to conceive the concept of God at that age. A limitless, all-pervasive loving force – something like your parents, only even more so.

From thereon in it's possible to make out a fuzzy narrative, a life story built around a love affair. As little Jimmy grows we first encounter hopeless adolescent infatuation outside the school gates ('Cyprus Avenue'), rising to a meeting of souls and bodies ('Ballerina'), then the inevitable break-up and dissolution ('Slim Slow Slider'). There's no shortage of lines which support this narrative, such as the girl being specified as fourteen on 'Cyprus Avenue' then as twenty-two on the later 'Ballerina'.)

Except the more you try to pin things to it, the less they adhere. 'Sweet Thing', for example, strikes up out of order, before the girl down Cyprus Avenue has even been glimpsed. But there's worse...

This narrative structure is mostly likely a detour I've built in my mind to skirt the obvious. In it the singer of 'Cyprus Avenue' is a schoolboy to go with the schoolgirl he's so smitten by. Which he most probably isn't. “My tongue gets tied” might suggest adolescent awkwardness, young mouths fumbling to express strange new feelings. But what of the line “conquered in a car seat”? Doesn't it suggests an ironic juxtaposition between the active, adult role of being behind the wheel and the regression back into a blushing boy? Besides, would one schoolchild strike another as “so young and bold”? In which case what we actually have is a song about an older guy parking up so he can gawp at a schoolgirl. Lester Bangs was probably right all along to say Morrison had a tendency to sing about paedophilia.

But, were we to somehow set this no-small-matter aside, the lack of coherence in itself doesn't matter much. While the album is playing, while it's all happening, the music and lyrics seem in such a state of harmony that surely it must all make sense. It's just when you try to make sense of it, it all seems to dissolve. It's like chasing the end of a rainbow, it so clearly seemed to be somewhere until you went there. But then sense was never the object. Morrison always insisted that he wrote the songs in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, had not the slightest clue what any of it might be about and has no interest in speculating on the subject.

However Lester Bangs, in his celebrated review, essentially stated that he has no idea about any of it either but doesn't see why that should stop him. Which is pretty much the approach I'm taking. When the love-story narrative works, go with it. As soon as it doesn't, let your mind focus on something else.

Take the sequencing, for example. It works better experienced as a geography than a narrative, the title track like crossing the crest of a hill to see what's laid out beyond, next a downward swoop into the serene valleys of 'Cyprus Avenue' and 'Madame George', then climbing the next peak with 'Ballerina'.

But, were we to insist on forcing the pieces into a fixed narrative, perhaps the worst aspect would be that it excludes the album's best track and incorporates its worst. Thematically, 'Like Young Lovers Do' is a companion love song to 'Ballerina'. Yet it's urbane and polished while the rest of the album is free-form and impressionistic. Compare the crooner scatting of the vocals as it closes to the ululating glossolalia of 'Madame George's “love that loves to love”. The track is such a sore thumb stuck on an elegant hand that you can only assume it was intended as a single. (Though no single was ever released.)

And speaking of 'Madame George'...

”And you know you've got to go...”

Ultimately, we need to be less concerned with what slots into the narrative than what fits the picture. The love story, like a love story in a movie, is a framing device. A way to convey what's really going on in a form most of us will recognise. So when the album's key and stand-out track, 'Madame George,' ignores it completely... well, so should we.

Mid-way through another idyllic reflection comes the phrase “and you know you gotta go”. Already the longest track on the album, just as it seems to be over it strikes back up for an extended closing refrain, built around the repeated phrase “say goodbye”. It hangs around as if the song itself doesn't want to leave, drawing out the moment as long as it can. If 'Madame George' is the key song on the album, this coda is quite possibly the key moment of the key song.

The cartoonist Dylan Horrocks once described nostalgia as “remembering the past without the passing of time... You're just remembering what the place was like and the particular atmosphere and so on”. ('The Comics Journal' 243, May 2002) By a kind of rose-tinted wallowing in the past, we evoke place over time. Tableaus triumph over narratives. Birthdays become special days, made up of cakes and presents, unconnected with our getting older. (I find myself I can remember whole chunks of childhood birthdays, but never what particular age I was.) Time has to be suspended for its time which is the undoing of all of this.

I think 'Astral Weeks', however tied up it is with recalling your youth, is doing something else - something more than what can easily become a old-chocolate-wrapper sense of nostalgia. And this coda is where that becomes clearest.

Earlier I compared the album to 'Bob Dylan's Dream', a comparison most notable with 'Madame George'. Significantly, both share the conceit of the past being represented by a room. ('Madame George' is perhaps the only interior-set song on the album.) And of course the past is territorialised for us, tied to memories of spaces we no longer inhabit. But more than that, enclosing the past makes it hermetic. For Dylan its a space he can peer back into, but behind a door that's forever locked. It's notable he dreams of the room – a static space - “while ridin' on a train going west” and comments of his time there “we never thought we could ever get old”. Whereas Morrison starts the song inside the room, then announces he has to leave. And that leaving is the heart of it all. We have our memories and we can indulge them, but embedded in them is the end-date, the knowledge that the situation ends.

'Madame George' is, in about every sense of the word, idyllic but that doesn’t make it utopian. It's on an album which can radiate with sunshine but is as likely to pour down “rain, hail, sleet and snow”. It’s not the soundtrack to a cheery singsong past. It’s an account of life being lived to its fullest, for both good and ill. As Lester Bangs says its “transfixed between pure rapture and anguish. Wondering if they may not be the same thing”. (Disclaimer: Ultimately, I’m not sure that I hear this album the same way as Bangs. It often feels like he heard the album he needed to hear at that time, rather than the one Morrison actually recorded. But that quote at least seems to me to be almost perfect.)

And, though at it's strongest on 'Madame George', this duality of memory is to be found elsewhere on the album. Take 'Ballerina', where Morrison sings “when you came up to me/ Child, you were heading for a fall”. And of course the Fall isn't a twist ending or an interruption to the Edenic myth, it's a core component of it. Some have suggested the woman's impending death on 'Slim Slow Slider' is as a result of drugs. But not only is that interpretation unsupported by the anything in the lyrics, we're not dealing with something that needs pinning to drugs, disease or any thing in particular. The line is “I know you're dying baby, and I know you know it too.” Its the knowledge of death which is significant, the sour-apple taste of knowledge, the opposite of all the not-wondering that went on earlier. Things have shifted from the innocence of the garden to awareness – exile in the outside world.

But for all that, the concept of a song cycle remains essential. When we think back to, for example, Morrison proclaiming “I shall never, never grow so old again”, we know full well that he does. He does it on the very same album. Time will pass. But its not that we're supposed to retrospectively fault this statement, to find it false or naïve. Its a true expression of a true feeling. It means that within the rapture of youth there can be no real sense of death, even if the concept can exist in the abstract.

Ultimately, its not just the songs but the conception of time which becomes cyclic. Rather than progressing through stages of our lives like baton-passers, the adult arising to replace the child, we grown in some way more akin to tree rings. The youthful state is kept alive inside of us, everything that happens being absorbed into our being. And this is captured in the afore-mentioned fugue state conveyed by the music, the sense of it happening all at once.

And it worked. Being out of time created something timeless. One of the (possibly apocryphal) stories about 'Astral Weeks' is that it sold poorly on release, but then carried on steadily selling the same number of copies with each successive year. It is true that when it achieved gold record status, it had taken thirty-three years to do it. It regularly appears on best-of album lists, including of course this one. It's an album you could never tire of, or feel you'd fully got to know. You'll always be caught one more time, down on Cyprus Avenue.

6 comments:

  1. Astral Weeks is one of those albums that I simply can't make sense of. (See also: pretty much everything by Dylan.) Almost every song on it annoys me enough that I stop it and move on to something else before reaching the end.

    I'm not trying to open a dialogue here on whether the album is any good. I'm sure it is. Enough people who I respect (you included) love it. What I find fascinating here is my own inability to see it. It's like a colour-blindness. I deeply regret it.

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  2. I guess it does overlap with Dylan to some degree. Sometimes when something is hard to parse it's good idea to work towards it by increments. But unfortunately this case, despite my love of 'Astral Weeks' I really don't know Morrison's general output well enough to recommend anything else by him.

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  3. What frightens me about this is that I had a similar initial reaction to Jimi Hendrix, and even to some extent Joni Mitchell -- both of whom are right up there now in my all-time top musicians. So I am left with this general sense that maybe one day I'll have a similar epiphany with Dylan (or, I guess, Van Morrison), and that leaves me unable to just write them off and move on with my life.

    ... and that's not even getting into the problem of the Rolling Stones :-)

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  4. It was many years ago when I was at school, and the Fall were one of the popular bands. I'd see their name written on other kids' school bags every day. And what got me wasn't that I didn't like them, but I couldn't see how anybody could like them. I didn't like the Exploited or Iron Maiden but thought I could see why their fans like them. How could anyone like the Fall? It seemed inexplicable.

    It bugged me so much I'd make a point of listening to them whenever John Peel played them. Which was frequent. And of course, as you'll have already guessed they became one of my most favourite bands.

    I think the moral of the story is that I wasn't trying to change my reaction. Willing yourself to get something is like willing yourself to go to sleep, its only ever going to be counterproductive.

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  5. As it happens, I made an effort to listen to the Fall's Hex Endunction Hour last week, partly because everyone went about how great they were when I was at university and partly because Stewart Lee listed that album in his all-time top 10. I absolutely hated it, and gave half way through track 4.

    So ... if you weren't trying to give yourself a chance to change your reaction, what were you doing when you deliberately listened to a band that you didn't like?

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  6. But then you didn't even get to 'Winter', one of their finest tracks of all! (Inexplicably split into two on the original LP version, that Mark E Smith can be strangely perverse.) Should I ever get further along with this series of Top 50 albums, I will include a Fall album. 'Hex' is almost everyone's favourite, but I think I might slightly prefer one of the others…

    I'd have been listening to Peel anyway so listening out to Fall tracks wasn't much extra effort. The Exploited seemed a classic bad punk band, sweary inchoate hate, the musical equivalent of lashing out, like Mel Smith's pisstake "Gob On You" except more parodic - terrible but explicable. The Fall were clearly doing something else but I had no idea what.

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