Friday, November 22, 2013

A sunken city

"Beside You" is my least favorite track on Astral Weeks. I'm tempted to say that it's doubtful the song's position as such will ever change, but this is Astral Weeks. A significant portion of the album's allure is wrapped up in its sheer bulk, its wondrous impenetrableness, its capacity to reveal a glittering new particle of genius with every listen. I've played Astral Weeks 1,000 times now—maybe "Beside You" will click on that 1,001st listen.

Anyway, for all the track's sins—it's slightly aimless, scattered with awkward imagery (when's the last time you heard a song reference nostrils?), and on an album stuffed with dense instrumentation, the stripped-down production leaves it feeling vacant and unfinished—I do relish Van Morrison's vibrant, meandering allusions to the beauty and grace of the physical world: "And you wander away from your hillside retreated view," followed by, "Way across the country where the hillside mountains glide."

Morrison's words were sparked by his eternal affection for his home (which is the case for much of the lyrics on Astral Weeks, of course)—in this particular instance, Belfast's striking natural beauty. Gerald Dawe dutifully described it in his book My Mother-City: "Coming into Belfast is like approaching a sunken city. It lies inside a horseshoe of surrounding hills; the coastal land to its southern shoreline is the rich, undulating landscape of County Down; to Belfast's northerly shores is Country Antrim: a harsher, dramatic terrain that faces Scotland across the narrow straits of the sea of Moyle."

And as I once wrote for One Week // One Band:
In Belfast, the serenity and relief of the countryside is always within one's grasp; you can hop in an automobile and drive from the city center to the base of Divis, a mountain that looms to the northwest, in roughly 20 minutes. The allure of that serenity and relief is inescapable. During our trip to Belfast, we took a morning walk up the Lisburn Road from our rented flat on College Gardens and I noticed how each glance down a narrow side street offered breathtaking views of the nearby mountains.

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