Some one asked me recently what the finest piece of art that I’ve ever experienced in my life was, the piece of work that remains fresh and revealing and in which genius is so undoubtedly evident. I couldn’t answer them straightaway, and indeed, it took me a long while of concentrated thought to come to any kind of conclusion.
I am fortunate enough to have gazed up at Adam’s finger tip touching God’s as Michelangelo depicted it on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in Rome, to have read the Book of Job uninterrupted and to have marvelled at David Ginola terrorising defences in the white of a Tottenham shirt…a sight that can only be described as a masterpiece. However, there is one piece of work that for me, touches more emotion than anything else, and displays genius more clearly than anything else I have ever experienced.
People had for years told me of the magnum opus that is Astral Weeks, a 1968 album by Northern Irish musician Van Morrison. Looking back I had often been caught by brief moments of curiosity when the album appeared, as it unfailingly would, on the “Rolling Stone’s-top 10 albums of last century” or “NME’s-top 10 greatest records of our time”, however I had never managed to actually go out and possess the music which so many people had promised me would change my life.
It took the mother of an old girlfriend to place a disc, in this instance a vinyl, in my hands and really force the music upon me, promising that things would never be the same again for my ears. She was right, and although the girlfriend, and a little more unfortunately, the mother, are history in my life today, Van’s lush R&B and harrowing folk music stays, often as more of a comforter and an upper than a girl could ever be.
Morrison found the zenith of his career with this work and it is remarkably mature for a man who was only 23 year old when it was recorded. Many account this to the emotional turmoil he had faced in the time proceeding its creation, as even though he is best known for his signature song, Brown Eyed Girl, in Astral Weeks we find the cut away soul of the musician, one far, far away from the happy go lucky character who “made love in the green grass” in his earlier hit.
Astral Weeks is far more, though, than just a one off hit, the unified nature of the tracks give it a great hint of being a concept album, and each song acts as one part of a whole, each contributing to paint for us this picture of London, Dublin and Belfast, and the nostalgia and drama that accompanied the artist as he explored their streets and their characters. In this sense, the work reminds me a great deal of another Irishman, James Joyce, and his book, the Dubliners, which finds 15 seemingly unrelated short stories, which could all be viewed as individual works, but which mean so much more when placed together to peak at the epiphany found in The Dead, the novella that concludes the work.
I’ve always found it important, when considering an album, to evaluate it within some kind of genre or other, however this is almost impossible to do with Astral Weeks, and indeed adds to its appeal. The jazz element and employment of jazz musicians makes this timbre hard to ignore, but the nature of the lyrics, sung often as an Irish folk song, occasionally as a pop song and sometimes even spoken, shouted or whispered, and composed well within the ‘troubadour tradition’, makes the record far more complex than straight jazz. I’ve listened to this music hundreds of times, and I am still discovering new things about it, and more facets to its sound.
What makes this album so remarkable is the emotion that Morrison conveys within the songs. I have never before, or since, found such a poetic presentation of anguish as I have in the album’s second song, Beside You, a tale of faithfulness towards a fated lover. Nor have I ever caught sight of such a haunting embodiment of regret as I do in the album’s closing number, Slim Slow Slider, where we find Van’s mournful lyrics and poignant vocal complimented perfectly by the almost transcendental playing of a faint soprano saxophone.
He manages to touch the inner core of one’s soul and one’s emotional self through his virtuoso, painful and often overwhelming singing, which some say is the closest Morrison ever came to expressing himself. However, this album is so much more than just personal expression, or self discovery, it is so sincere, so unswerving and so revealing that it is a lesson in the heart, and a voyage between “the viaducts of your dreams”.