When a young Northern Irish soul singer entered the studio in 1968, he wasn't trying to make history, just a second record.
Morrison had already enjoyed success as a member of Them but was wearing out his record company’s patience in his nascent solo career when he committed Astral Weeks to tape over just three days of incredible creative inspiration.
Released on 29 November 1968, Astral Weeks went on to bend the entire orbit of popular music and the alluring, uncategorisable songs that resulted have made it a mainstay on lists of the greatest albums ever.
Yet, upon its release, Astral Weeks arrived with little fanfare.
Across space and time, 'Astral Weeks' links a secret society of people: dreamers, romantics, doomed souls, defiantly persistent stutterers in the language of the heart.@lindsayzoladz: https://t.co/fJYD0rVgrn
— The Ringer (@ringer) November 29, 2018
Now hailed as an untouchable classic, Astral Weeks was slow to find an audience
Writing in NME, Nick Logan made the now-laughable assertion that it was a lesser version of José Feliciano’s contemporary record. Other critics saw its impressionistic lyrics as hippie nonsense and fretted about its freewheeling roaming across genres and moods.
The critical consensus has since completely shifted. Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10.0 rating while
The Guardian annointed it the tenth-greatest album ever made. Uncut listed it as the third greatest record ever made and Mojo would place it behind only Pet Sounds in the pantheon of popular music.
Commercial success also eluded Van Morrison on the record’s release, though that would come two years later with Moondance. Instead, Astral Weeks’ success was very much of the slow-burning variety with each successive generation discovering its romantic, visionary, soul-inflected amalgam of jazz, folk, psychedelia and improvised blues.
The record’s highpoint is perhaps the sprawling ‘Madame George’, a nine-minute mini-epic that gathers a cathartic power even while defying easy interpretation.
Arguably the best-known song on the record, however, is its poppiest, ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. It’s been rubbished in some quarters (Clinton Heylin likened it to “Spumante at a champagne buffet”), though its sheer effervescence has made it a favourite for others. Besides, if a song is good enough for Jeff Buckley (who covered it on his Live at Sin-é), it is probably good enough for anyone else.
Morrison was an enigma during the recording of Astral Weeks
Morrison had signed to Warner Brothers essentially as a solo artist and left bassist Richard Davis to assemble the studio players, many of whom had cut their teeth in jazz bands. The other musicians on the record spoke little to Morrison and even years later were uncertain whether he was shy or simply aloof.
Any friction between the record’s star and surrounding musicians didn’t colour the music, however, which coalesces into a fluid and sumptuously beautiful whole.
Brook Arthurs, who engineered the record, remembers the recording process as flowing smoothly despite the limited communication between Morrison and his colleagues. “There wasn’t too much stopping and starting,’ he recalled. “Van took off and the musicians went with him. They were serious players, they didn’t have to think about it, they just did it instinctively, and it caught fire…we were breathing rarefied air in there.”
Guitarist Jay Berliner did relish the artistic freedom Morrison gave his band. There were no lead sheets for the recording. Instead, Berliner recalled, Morrison “allowed us to stretch out”.
“We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt.”
The record’s artful ambiguity means every admirer has seen something slightly different in it. Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, in a 1979 piece, relished the “redemptive element in the blackness”.
Detailing how Astral Weeks had given him comfort during a dark period of his own life, Bangs praised the record’s humanity and the “swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”