Saturday, September 20, 2014

Astral Weeks II: The Revenge

Van Morrison was notorious for distancing himself from his work. In fact, he often took to disparaging an album immediately after its release. Morrison did it with His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Hard Nose the Highway, A Period of Transition. Not even Astral Weeks was spared.

In the years following its release, Morrison feigned apathy ("I didn't really get into it as much as I thought I would"), lobbed accusations that he was handcuffed during the album's recording sessions ("I was kind of restricted, because it wasn't really understood what I really wanted"), and forced the idea that his label, Warner Bros., or his producer, Lewis Merenstein—or both!—were responsible for sabotaging his work.

Said pal and collaborator John Gershen: "There is a reoccurring theme in a lot of conversations I had with him [Morrison] ... That [Astral Weeks] as it came out, as it was released, was not the album he intended it to be. That was a consistent theme: 'They ruined it for me. They added the strings. And when they sent it to me, it was all changed. That's not Astral Weeks.'"

Morrison was so steely and steadfast in his decision not to cut a follow-up in the vein of Astral Weeks that when Merenstein brought in three of the album's key musicians—bassist Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner, and drummer Warren Smith—for the initial Moondance sessions, the Irishman quickly dismissed them. There would be no quote/unquote sequel—leave that shit to Neil Diamond, Meat Loaf, and Kiss.

Or to us fans ... Time for a little bit of speculative fun. I decided to come up with my own Astral Weeks postscript, a collection of tracks that best emulates that album's style, tone, and mood. I selected songs from the most imaginative and compelling period of Morrison's solo career: the six years following Astral Weeks, from 1970's Moondance to 1974's Veedon Fleece. Potential titles for this fictitious release include, Astral Weeks II: Still Venturing in the Slipstream, Astral Weeks II: It's a Long Way to Belfast City, and Astral Weeks II: Double Back to a Cul De Sac. Equally pretentious suggestions are welcome. And away we go ...

Track 1: "Saint Dominic's Preview" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
"Saint Dominic's Preview" ranks as one of the most Belfast-centric songs of Morrison's early catalog (he even mentions the city by name, something he never did on Astral Weeks). It's also possibly a response to those criticizing his staunch refusal to discuss the Troubles. The song's lyrics allude to Protestantism's most cherished color, the symbols of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide ("All the chains, badges, flags, and emblems"; this lyric may have been a direct reference to one of the province's most controversial pieces of legislation), and the negative physical and psychological consequences of the endless violence ("No one's making no commitments / To anybody but themselves / Hidin' behind closed doorways / Tryin' to get outside, outside of empty shells").

Track 2: "Cul de Sac" (from Veedon Fleece, 1974)
Similar to Astral Weeks, our sequel opens with a rousing and elevating opener followed by a slow-burning, deliberately-paced number. "Cul de Sac," for all its specific nostalgia, is also wonderfully vague when it comes to eulogizing the past. Astral Weeks achieved a similarly delightful balance.

Track 3: "Tupelo Honey" (from Tupelo Honey, 1971)
An achingly pretty love song in the same vein as "Sweet Thing." But while the couple in that track sound like they're blissfully caught up in the physical components of their relationship (physical, as in strolling, jumping, and walking; and physical as in bumpin' uglies), "Tupelo Honey" is less active, more meditative, more about the emotional completeness that a partner brings. Also, a bit of trivia: Astral Weeks alum Connie Kay handles the drums on this track.

Track 4: "Listen to the Lion" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
Next, we have an 11-minute odyssey built on a foundation of Morrison's otherworldly vocals. Very Astral Weeks-like, no? "Listen to the Lion" features growls, incantations, whispers, sudden changes in tempo—it's the Irishman at his improvisational best. (Kay is also again behind the kit.)

Track 5: "And It Stoned Me" (from Moondance, 1970)
A sonic change in pace and a palette cleanser, "And It Stoned Me" is a chance to catch your breath before you dive into another mammoth track. ("The Way Young Lovers Do" serves an identical role.) The song mimics Astral Weeks' enthusiastic devotion to the natural world while overflowing with imagery from Morrison's adolescence.

Track 6: "Almost Independence Day" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
Pay particularly close attention to Morrison's vocals at the 1:45 mark of "Almost Independence Day." One of the most Astral Weeks-y moments that's not found on Astral Weeks.

Track 7: "Streets of Arklow" (from Veedon Fleece, 1974)
An album finale in the mold of "Slim Slow Slider." "Streets of Arklow" slowly unfurls, taking its time to stretch and loosen up and unleash its charms. But like the greatest Morrison compositions, it rewards the listener for their patience. It's vulnerable, it's dense, it's a beautiful memory—it's the perfect way to close our imaginary sequel.

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