Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Massive communal experiences

It took 33 years for Astral Weeks to reach Gold status, which means the album averaged a little over 15,000 copies sold annually. In the time it will take me to craft this post, Adele's 21 will have sold one-third that number. Meanwhile, if one is to believe the Internet, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, popular music's oft-mentioned exemplar of Billboard 200 success, still moves 10,000 copies a week—four decades after its recording.

I'm not interested in rehashing why Astral Weeks' failure to attain a commercial success to match its critical appeal was so thorough and complete. What fascinates me is how this failure left Astral Weeks without any vital, enduring link to the specific time period in which it was released. Numerous albums matured into more than assemblages of connected and semi-connected pieces of music: They became massive communal experiences for listeners. Millennium (and "I Want It That Way") in the summer of 1999. Thriller in 1983. I recall reading (exactly which book, I can't recollect; it was possibly this one) an account of the Madchester scene of the late '80s where one individual described (rather apocryphally) walking down an English street filled with row houses during the summer of 1989 and hearing the Stone Roses' "I Am the Resurrection" blasting forth from one open window after another.

Astral Weeks never fostered a similar sense of connectedness. There was no universal embrace, no measure of time the album came to reign, no collective pressing of the ear to a thin, papered wall and realizing the neighbor next door was also humming along to the title track. This was simply because so few people purchased the dang thing. (Also: No singles were released, further impeding the LP's path to the radio and wider audiences.) Astral Weeks certainly achieved a degree of appeal in Van Morrison's hometown of Belfast. However, it's crucial to note that in November of 1968, when the album was released, Morrison was four long years removed from the apex of his popularity there (Them's seismic live shows at the Maritime Hotel in the spring and summer of 1964), and one short year removed from an uneven and tepidly received solo debut. Thus, that degree of appeal was likely infinitesimal.

What it all means, I suppose: Astral Weeks is frequently bestowed with a number of hackneyed superlatives, chief among them the blessing of being "timeless." In striving for greater accuracy, one could say that Astral Weeks is not necessarily timeless, but is the rare iconic album that is not bound by the time period in which it was birthed.

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