Friday, 15 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: THREE

VAN MORRISON – Astral Weeks (1968)

Best song: “Madame George” (could be any other though)

That might seem a little too predictable (after all, Astral Weeks is almost a default critical choice for Ireland’s best album), but what can I do. This is truly a masterpiece of free, poetic self-expression, as nuanced and bold as the best Impressionistic paintings. I remember the person who gave me this record – 7 or 8 years ago – made a point of warning me: but Astral Weeks is a difficult album, very improvisational. Well, improvisational I can agree with. But difficult? I think it took me about 20 seconds to fall in love with that magnificent title song. Whereas the charms of Morrison’s more ‘accessible’ and ‘song-based’ follow-up, Moondance, still elude me.

Astral Weeks really does have a certain jazzy, mellow, slightly mystical feel to it. Songs are relatively free-form and lengthy (my favourite today, “Madame George”, lasts more than nine and a half minutes) – but they are never really meandering or substance-free. They are not there to tease and annoy you. These songs have meat in them, as well as those wonderfully loose, passionate vocals. Granted, there is not much variation going on throughout this album  but then that was never the point. While the instrumentation is quite elaborate (there are flutes, violins, lots of bass, brass, etc.) – Astral Weeks still gives an impression of being a very fragile, understated sort of record. A record that is sure to give you new sensations every time you care to put it on. Like my favourite albums by Kate Bush, Astral Weeks certainly feels like some kind of a journey into a poet’s heart. Or should I say art?

Astral Weeks is one of those very special records you don’t play too often – but then when you do  that (perhaps when you least expect it) you feel you are in for a special treat. Be it a cold evening in December or maybe a hot summer night – the record will keep you pleasantly transfixed whenever its gently floating textures touch you. Astral Weeks is for people with imagination. Certainly not for the chummy, digital generation that would rather listen to tracks than songs. 

Irishness. Van Morrison is of course from Northern Ireland… But I guess with their rich literary past Irish people must all have a poetic side to them. Or at least I've always wanted to believe in that.

RECOMMENDATIONS. None – though it pains me to be so categorical. Van Morrison’s other records have never managed to impress me. Often too watery, too vague melodically. But I’m one of those rare people (considering my age) who got into Morrison’s solo career after Them, his overlooked 60’s Belfast band. I love Them! Have you heard “You Just Can’t Win”? It’s astonishing! Rough, bluesy, intense – that band is certainly worthy of your time.

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