Thursday, May 22, 2014
Astral Weeks is very place-specific. If one is cataloging its most crucial elements—those specific ingredients that make Astral Weeks Astral Weeks—the album's fixed setting is among the top three on the list. Van Morrison understood, like many distinguished novelists or short story writers, that a setting doesn't merely contain the story. It often is the story. This short passage from Alice Munro's "Face" is one I recently considered while listening to Astral Weeks: "Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places." I also found myself thinking about the writer Liam O'Flaherty, born on the Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. O'Flaherty was of the opinion that the power of his native land came from the landscape rather than its people—that mankind, even at its most enchanting and unspoiled, is simply no match for the anarchic intensity of the natural world. I won't say Morrison arrived at the same conclusion regarding Belfast ("Madame George" is an example of the Irishman's belief that the pure influence of the city's people is equal to the power of its landscapes). But he certainly does embrace the idea that throughout the course of an individual life, there are few places where, to quote Munro, "something happened." On Astral Weeks, Morrison acknowledges that these specific places forever nest inside us, vivid and noisy and begging to be revisited. And when our lives become muddled or broken, we venture to these places to recover something—some idea of ourselves, perhaps—and start down those paths to inner peace.