Monday, December 1, 2014

"It's lyric poetry, sparrowfooted"

Last week, I shared some Astral Weeks-inspired worship from Canadian writer Sean Michaels. The 32-year-old Montreal resident, who recently won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada's most prestigious literary award), took a few moments to answer my questions via email.

Throwing Pennies: I read one of your posts from awhile back in which you were critical of pretty much everything Van Morrison has done other than Astral Weeks. In your mind, what is it that makes Astral Weeks the outlier? What is it that sets this album apart—way apart—from the rest of the music in his catalog?

Michaels: Maybe it was the fight in him, maybe the insecurity, maybe the improvisational element or just dumb luck: But Astral Weeks doesn't sound like any other Van Morrison album. The production, the arrangements, the singing: for all its filigree, it's barer. It's truer and barer, unguarded. Morrison so often indulges himself, or drowns his singing in cheeseball arrangements. Here the stakes feel high. Here, nothing's syrupy. Neither too posed nor poised, over-pretty. This is just folk music, or jazz; it's musicians finding out as they go.

Throwing Pennies: What's your favorite track on Astral Weeks?

Michaels: "Sweet Thing" is it for me. I've never heard another song that's so in love and still so searching—trembling, swooning, certain, cresting. That bassline and the high, high, hidden strings: I'm absolutely somewhere else, and absolutely alive.

Throwing Pennies: Did you hear the Astral Weeks live album that was released in 2009?

Michaels: What a shit-show. Take this music and gussy it up, fix its gait, electroshock the damn heart. Turn a perfect house into a crummy cathedral.

Throwing Pennies: I cringe when I hear Van mentioned as a "poet" and that his name should be placed alongside Ireland's great writers. At the same time, I occasionally bring up James Joyce when writing about Astral Weeks, specifically because of how both Joyce and Morrison created art with a really powerful "consciousness of place." Do you think there's any sort of literary value, for lack of a better term, to Astral Weeks' lyrics?

Michaels: I prefer Astral Weeks' lines sung to when I see them on the page. You're right about his capacity to conjure placeness, timeness, but he also has the admirable rare [ability] to make ten-dollar words feel like ha'penny ones. Which is to say—some of these lyrics that look prim or over-reaching, written down, feel so musical as they're recorded. Reading Astral Weeks' verses, it can seem like slightly purple poetry, stuffed with stuff—but on record the lines land so lightly, for me. It's lyric poetry, sparrowfooted.

Throwing Pennies: Bear with me for this last one ... Awhile back, I had a discussion with fellow Astral Weekers on the album's "molecules." The album is so dense, grandiose, boundless, etc., yet at the same time, filled with an endless amount of these small and specific moments—a couplet, a string of notes from Richard Davis' bass, a Van Morrison yelp, a brief interplay between two instruments, etc.—wonderful little moments that you reach up and grab, and hold onto to and repeatedly examine and find some meaning in. So my question is: Do you have a favorite moment, a favorite molecule, from Astral Weeks?

Michaels: In "Madame George," there is a moment near the end when the drums appear. (Or really, essentially, a single cymbal.) Every time it is astonishing; every time it is as if a secret door is opening, a sign toward some hopeful progress. And "Madame George" feels suddenly like a useful goodbye, or a young beginning.

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