Leonard Cohen once said, “Music is the emotional life of most people,” and that holds more than a grain of truth. That is not to say that those without a Fender under their arms go reticently bumbling through life, but on a groggy Tuesday morning with a long shift ahead it can be difficult to grasp the same profundity of existence that Van Morrison seems to be seized by in the crafting of Astral Weeks. Thus, we can be forever thankful for the way that he fished it from the ether to serve not only as a load lightening boon for the rest of us but a beacon through the murky malaise of the everyday to some exultant sunny place beyond.
Over fifty years on, the ethereal power of the album remains, but back when it was first released, it gleamed with even more luminosity amid the darkened chaos of a deeply troubled time in America. 1968 was a year of tumult, turmoil and musical triumph. With civil rights movements in full swing and simmering tensions regarding the Vietnam War taking to the streets, the bubbling pot of a manic year finally spilt over in tragedy with the catastrophic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
While most artists — in an era where social consciousness was seemingly a brand-new buzz phrase — were looking to either bottle the zeitgeist like a sociological documentarian or else withdraw from it entirely, Van Morrison seemingly figured he’d tackle it on a whim and give free flow to his bolted muse. He absconded himself into the far reaches of Boston’s underbelly to hide from an abusive record contractor, got his creative head in gear, then decided it was time to make a fusion song cycle back in New York.
He entered the studio with musicians on upright bass, guitar, harpsichord, vibraphone, flute and a few other trappings and set his words in motion with a string arrangement set to follow later. In three short sessions that he describes as being “like an alchemical kind of situation”, he had produced a masterpiece. He simply entered the studio, strummed out his songs a few times to the elite musicians around him, retreated to his vocal booth and belted out a wallop of pent-up salvation.
Astral Weeks’ joyous sound and production celebrate the simple pleasure of music itself. The songwriting is a hymnal stream. And the lyrics were an early poetic archetype of the many ‘revolutions of the mind’ that would follow thereafter. Whilst direct action was indeed needed on the streets at the time, to right the many morally obvious wrongs occurring, Morrison showed that ignorance and bliss are two separate things entirely by offering a much-needed place of escapism that nevertheless illuminated the need for change by way of its contrasting glossy tones amid the harsh realities.
It is a record that is unbridled by the fear of judgement. Striding over cynics who would call it pretentious, Van Morrison and his band seem to propagate the mantra of the zeitgeist put forth in Pierrot Le Fou: “Life might be sad sometimes but it is always beautiful.” The entire album is performed at the rousing depths of what Federico Garcia Lorca called Duende, “a mysterious force that everyone feels, and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.”
Not bad considering there are swathes where you can’t understand a bloody word. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t apply the same critical thinking to society these days. While the singer continues to fight with scientists and virologists over the validity of their collective educations, there’s one chemical concoction that he did get right.