Top 100 Album Review: #19 – Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968)

Aimless Wailing.

Squalling and yelling on top of multiple layers of improvised classical, jazz, and folk.

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Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #21/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

There is a lady who sings international music on the sidewalks of Carytown in Richmond, VA. Densely-populated with shops and restaurants, she sings inaudible oscillating pitches while improvising on foreign instruments as the shapeless crowd passes by. As far as street performances go, it’s okay.

To my knowledge, she’s never placed an album on a top 100 list which makes sense. Her venue matches her output. Astral Weeks, absolutely similar with undecipherable yelps and forgettable compositions, would be right at home on the same city side-block as her.

lead_720_405.jpg[OVERVIEW]

Album number two by Van Morrision, it is quite a departure from what came before and what came after. Between the smash hit of Brown Eyed Girl and the album Moondance (another top 100 album with several well known hits), Morrison goes in quite a different direction here. He decided to push the boundary of musical terrain, adding his unique style to a studio full of talented musicians. The output was Astral Weeks: an album that showcases multiple layers of instruments in lengthy improvisations buffering Van Morrison’s vocals and guitar.

It never cracked the Billboard 200 Albums for sales, which should tell you what you need to know about it. Panned by critics and listeners at the time, it was never promoted by his album company — probably for good reason. Somehow, it was reborn like a Phoenix to become considered one of the most important rock albums of all time.

I’m listening to this album as I visit my family, and here are some of the general comments:

  • “Distasteful.”
  • “A bunch of lousy songs and fillers. Does this album have one hit?” 
  • The music is kind of pretty. Too bad you can’t hear it over Van’s awful singing.” 
  • “If you want to continue listening to that, please take it outside.” 

[TRACKLISTING]

Part 1: In The Beginning

  1. Astral Weeks 7:00
  2. Beside You 5:10
  3. Sweet Thing 4:10
  4. Cyprus Avenue 6:50

Part 2: Afterwards

  1. Young Lovers Do 3:10
  2. Madame George 9:25
  3. Ballerina 7:00
  4. Slim Slow Slider 3:20

*All songs written by Van Morrison. 

[BEST TRACK: Sweet Thing]

This song is the reason I’m giving the album two stars. It encapsulates more of the good and less of the bad with Van Morrison’s project. It’s a pretty composition with pretty lyrics and showcases the varied instrumental backing. Even though it lacks any long-lasting hooks, at least it’s concrete.

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst
And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they’ll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain

[BEST TRACK TO MAKE YOU ANGRY: Beside You]

What starts out as pretty and peaceful music gets wrecked by Morrison who wails repeated lyrics until you are pummeled into a hypertensive crisis. One family member who was busy cooking couldn’t figure out why she was getting so mad, an internal swelling of anger. Once we hit the apex of the wailing, she looked at me with bulging eyes saying “It’s this…MUSIC!” 

Little Jimmy’s gone
Way out of the backstreet
Out of the window
Through the fallin’ rain
Right on time
Right on time
That’s why Broken Arrow
Waved his finger down the road so dark and narrow

[CONCLUSION]

If they have a version that edits out Morrison’s voice, I might give it another try.

Other People’s Takes: 

  • Bored in Pittsburg:It’s incredible to me that Morrison was only 23 when this album was recorded, because it sounds like the work of a dying old man whose entire life is rushing by him all at once and he’s just trying to react to as many images as possible while he’s still alive”
  • Songs For the Day: To me, ‘Sweet Thing’ by Van Morrison is perfect in every imaginable way, and oddly enough, I have never actually written anything beyond a couple of sentences about it.”
  • Their Bated Breath: The shaking of a leaf on a tree becomes Van Morrison’s spirit-level — much like a blade of grass became Walt Whitman’s cosmos. It’s impossible to pinpoint what exactly “it” is that makes this album so stunning.”

Author: Casual But Smart

I review the top 100 books, movies, albums, and games of all time.

11 thoughts on “Top 100 Album Review: #19 – Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968)”

    1. That’s a good question and one I struggle with in general: how much time should I give an album before judgement? At minimum, I give an album three listens. I usually try and spread this out over a long period of time if I I’m not “getting it” so my preconceptions or current attitudes aren’t getting in the way.

      With Astral Weeks, I gave it three listens, but they were in much closer succession (one week). The final time I listened to it with family, I just decided it wasn’t worth circling back to, and I wanted to “check it off” the list.

      I occasionally return to albums already reviewed and give it another go. Or, I come across a review on wordpress that stirs up my interest again. Maybe that will happen with Astral Weeks.

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      1. Well it’s a completely different album sort of album. Three listens won’t do it, especially if your family is whining through the third pass. You’ve got to treat it more like jazz or classical — it reveals itself more in that way. Of course if you don’t dig Van’s voice at all (and it really seems like you don’t — unless you’re exaggerating for laughs) then all bets are off. I’ve got artists like that. Karen Carpenter is one — her voice is makes me feel unwell. But…if you can get past that somehow and get the album on loop…then I think you’d be writing something completely different in a few months. There’s something in the blood and bones of this album that I haven’t found in other music.

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      2. I liked Van Morrisons other top 100 album Moondance, so it’s not so much what I have against his voice but what he does with his voice here. This is more dreamy and aimless, so the ups and downs and repeated words grated on me.

        I think the fault with me as a music listener is that I expect these albums to have their fair share of hits and hidden gems. I need an album to have a few songs I can hang my hat on so I can by approximation listen to the rest of the material and let it open up to me. “What’s Goin On” by Marvin Gaye has those concrete hits and a bunch of weirdness all around it, but I was able to learn to appreciate it because I had enough to keep me coming back.

        So albums that don’t fit that mold (Astral Weeks, Horses, A Riot’s Goin’ On) are always hard for me to contend with.

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      3. I got moondance at about the same time. Much preferred it to start with. More catchy by far. It took more than a year for astral weeks to push ahead and perhaps a year or two more to push ahead of every other album I’ve heard. It’s a gradual thing. Most other people who love the album will tell you the same thing I suspect.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Ps: ….’horses’ is one of the least impressive albums I’ve heard. I read Patti smiths ‘just kids’ and was looking forward to digging into her back catalogue. I knew horses from my brothers collection growing but I was still shocked to hear how unmusical it was. Surely that didn’t make the top 100?!

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  1. When I listened, I thought that the album was definitely culturally significant, but not musically pleasing. I agree with you that there isn’t a single standout track or anything particularly memorable about the album. Maybe I need to live with it longer to appreciate the nuance that others find in it, but it gives me a headache to listen too long… :/ Definitely wouldn’t put it as #19 of all time.

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