Last week, Forest Hills Stadium played host to Van Morrison and Willie Nelson, two of the most revered and enduring recording artists of the last half-century.
The icons make for interesting touring partners. Aside from both being men of a certain age—Morrison turned 73 last month, while Nelson is an inspiringly spritely octogenarian—they share two of the most distinctive voices in popular music.
For Morrison in particular, his legacy for many will be the pronounced and intrepid growl on tracks such as “Dark Side of the Road” and “Gloria,” in which his vocals, full of soul and power, sit audaciously above the music. It is a voice instantly recognizable and beseechingly nostalgic; for those of us who grew up in households in which Moondance was the default album for gatherings, a half syllable of Morrison’s voice is enough to buckle us into the backseat of the family car and drive us straight back to our childhoods. The uniqueness of his voice is an attribute few other artists possess.
This coming November marks the 50th anniversary of a lesser-known, but equally singular, achievement of Morrison: the release of his 1968 album Astral Weeks. It is, perhaps, the most extraordinary album ever recorded in the history of popular music. Paradoxically, for the greater listening public, it is Morrison’s most-overlooked album of a catalogue spanning nearly six decades. Only one of its tracks, the seductive and melancholy “Sweet Thing,” made the cut onto 1990’s The Best of Van Morrison.
Astral Weeks in many ways is a victim of its own brilliance. The album transcends notions of popular music, including the idea of a “hit single.” Astral Weeks is not merely a gathering of disparate and discrete tracks, cobbled together to make up the numbers to satisfy the demands of a commercial product; rather, it is a cycle of songs, each one in conversation with the other. Many of these songs lack a recognizable structure. Morrison’s voice wanders above an upright bass, flute, harpsichord, vibraphone and strings. His lyrics are a stream of surreal images, spiritual encounters and forlorn characters; his customary growl wrestled down into a wail by the force of the music.
Those who know the album have recognized the genius within it. Music critic Greil Marcus likened Astral Weeks to Bob Beamon’s record-destroying long jump at the Mexico Olympics, an accomplishment so exceptional that it was “way outside of history.” It elicited from Lester Bangs a definitive piece of music writing, his “Astral Weeks” from 1979’s Stranded—a work of ekphrastic art so astonishing that it not only rivals the magnificence of the record on which it was based, but also sits comfortably beside other works of renowned ekphrasis, such as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Ashbery’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Astral Weeks was of particular importance to Bangs. At the time of its release in the fall of 1968, he wrote that he was a “physical and mental wreck,” isolated from friends, paranoid and depressed. Bangs was not alone in his malaise. It was the autumn following the summer of love, and the progressive ideals of the ’60s were beginning to disintegrate. The record, for many, assumed the quality of a beacon, a mystical document that provided, as Bangs put it, “a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” While in no way explicitly political, Astral Weeks captured the tenor of the times better than any other album, including those that referenced the pressing issues of the day directly in their songs.
Just as Astral Weeks defied popular music conventions, it defies the capacity to explain why. Everything about the album eludes standard interpretations. Bangs’ genius was to recognize this, to know the limitations he was working under. Thus, instead of describing the album from the outside in, he entered Morrison’s world and catalogued the album from the inside out. Here is what is, for me, a fragment of one of the most exceptional pieces of music criticism:
Van Morrison was twenty-two – or twenty-three – years old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it. What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. 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, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt. Transfixed between pure rapture and anguish. Wondering if they may not be the same thing, or at least possessed of an intimate relationship….
Astral Weeks, both the album and its namesake review, are proof that art is palliative only through revelation; that while the sentimental might take us back to another time and place—and provide momentary comfort and distraction—it is only through an elucidation of a vision not yet reached that we are truly inspired.
We find ourselves yet again in an age of unease, if not total malaise, in which so much art is candid in its protest. It will be interesting to see how much, if any, of this art stands the test of time as has Astral Weeks, a record that speaks just as directly to the weariness felt in 2018 as it did to that of 1968.