As much as I love the 60’s, I’ll never understand the era’s fascination with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an album that should appear next to the dictionary definition of colossal bore. So what if they improvised a lot? Big deal. Jazz musicians had been doing that for years. So what if it was “stream of consciousness”? Big deal. Stream of consciousness is only interesting when the consciousness being streamed is interesting, and Van Morrison’s is really not that interesting. Weird and anti-social pretty much describes his behavior, and if I wanted weird and anti-social stream of consciousness, I could just go down to where the homeless guys hang out, screaming about aliens and zoo people. Astral Weeks may have given Morrison cult cred, but cults are formed by terribly insecure people who need to feel they have superior intellect or insight. A few of these losers latched on to that completely unappealing piece of shit and formed a cult to make them feel superior to the rest of us idiots who “just don’t get it.”
Screw them. Astral Weeks sucks and that’s the end of the discussion.
Fortunately for us, Morrison yanked his head out of his ass and gave us Moondance, a far less abstract piece of work that weaves folk, country, soul and jazz influences to create a sound and mood that stood apart from the more elaborate pieces that characterized the period. It’s also a much more emotional and human album, giving the listener something to grasp instead of allowing them to wander through the fog of consciousness. The poetry is much more concrete and down-to-earth, according to T. S. Eliot’s guiding principles.
It is ironic that this Irish singer wrote what could have easily been the quintessential Americana song with “And It Stoned Me.” It’s also ironic that the things Americans think are uniquely American like headin’ down to the old fishin’ hole are universal. The only thing that gives its national origins away is the reference to half-a-crown. It’s a beautiful opener about natural highs suitable to the time when the fetish with psychedelics was beginning to ebb:
Then the rain let up and the sun came up
And we were gettin’ dry
Almost let a pick-up truck nearly pass us by
So we jumped right in and the driver grinned
And he dropped us up the road
We looked at the swim and we jumped right in
Not to mention fishing poles
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Let it run all over me
The title track, on the other hand, is a terribly romantic number, with gorgeous imagery floating gently over the soft jazz background:
And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush
Van then shifts to soft and sweet falsetto with “Crazy Love.” The tenderness in his voice is so vivid you can imagine the woman right there beside him as he croons softly in her ear. Morrison has an unusual voice with unusual range; the impact of his voice comes not from hitting the notes but the feeling and phrasing. Despite his extreme introversion (my parents saw him at The Fillmore when he had the crew turn off all the lights so he could perform in the dark), I have always heard his voice as one brimming with emotion, never going over the top but always ready to burst.
“Caravan” is a nice sing-a-long that lets you breathe a bit after the two romantic pieces. My personal favorite on Moondance comes next: “Into the Mystic.” Opening with tenor sax (which always knocks me on my ass), the song Morrison described as having “an ethereal feeling” is really grounded in concrete imagery:
I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float into the mystic
“Come Running” is reminiscent of “Brown Eyed Girl,” a song you can skip to or jiggle to as you prefer. “These Dreams of You” is a song of bad luck or bad dreams or the inability to repress a fond memory of a lover or friend. It’s the most playful song of the album, with a fab sax solo in the middle. “Brand New Day” is my least favorite track; it seems that everyone was doing hymn-like numbers as the Swinging Sixties faded into the Sucky Seventies. Sorry, hymns like this and “Let It Be” always seem to fall short; the original gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson already claimed that space and did it so much better.
We then awaken to a clavinet in 6/8 time, introducing the song “Everyone,” a whirling dervish of a song that flows nicely over a harmonizing flute. The album ends with the oft-forgotten “Glad Tidings,” a song I simply adore. The song is heavily ironic; it deals with the truth that even “glad tidings” can be shiny packages hidden with unexpected and unpleasant consequences. Some have opined that this song was Morrison’s attack on the music industry, and they could be right. Whatever the exact meaning, the song flat-out works: the band is right where it should be and the la-la-la’s relieve any underlying darkness.
I know I can get preachy on this topic, but when I hear individual songs from Moondance, disappointment rises over me as quickly as it does when I’m hot and horny and all the guy has to offer is a limp wick. Like so many other great albums, you have to listen to the entire work in one setting to appreciate it. And, hey, it’s a classy thing to do—-uh—you know—like—-respect the artist—right? The entire work takes less than forty minutes, and in those forty minutes, Van Morrison will take you places where you really need to spend some time.