Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”

Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" album coverI’ve been getting to know Van Morrison’s 1968 album “Astral Weeks” for my “To My Ear” project. Each week I listen to an album generally recognized for being great. The goal is to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician; The process also introduces me to some great music. I disliked this album with the first few listens and was really dreading giving it a full seven days. I heard little more than monotonous ramblings over musicians trying to find a song. Gradually, parts of it grew on me. Not only did I experience usual side-effect of familiarity, but my brain had to learn how to process it. I still don’t really like most of the album, but I came to like a few tracks.

The fourth track “Cypress Avenue” closes side one of the record. The music follows something a blues progression played with in a relaxed chamber folk style. The accompaniment consists of upright bass, acoustic guitar, harpsichord, violins, and flute. The violin and flute seem to be languidly improvising throughout the song. Their apparent lack of purpose beyond atmospheric accompaniment give the song a directionless quality shared with the rest of the album. The feeling of sameness makes the already long seven minutes feel like forever. Still, this song has a stronger sense of rhythm than most them. The blues structure helps the lyrics feel less like poetic ramblings.

Those lyrics carry a sense of nostalgia and longing. Their conscious of the distance between the present and the past within the locale. This is a topic that resonates with me strongly and one that I often visit in my own songs already.

The next track, “Like Young Lovers Do, opens the second side. Like, well, the rest of the album, the song flows along in a monotonous way. In this case it’s forgiven because it’s less then four minutes long. The use of strings and horns provides a sense of movement, especially at the close of each chorus. In fact, these instruments make the chorus feel like the chorus. It’s overall a nice little song. Though, honestly, it may largely benefit from sounding different than the rest of the album.

The next track Madame George consisting stood out as my favorite all week. It was the first to catch my attention. Even after listening to the whole album multiple times, none of them had the same grand sense of purpose and heart as “Madame George.” The lyrics provide enough narrative to draw the listener in, but enough ample room for questions and interpretation. “Madame George” is a seriously good song, even when not considering how boring the rest of the album can be.

Before I get into discussing this one track, let me say that I feel like I’m missing something by not appreciating the rest of the album. Maybe spending more time with it would help. However, my goal here is to improve my songwriting. I feel that a good song gets better with repeat listening; I’m not so sure that it should take more than a week of repeated listening to appreciate a song. I spent a full week with this album and only one song truly grabbed me.

The chords of “Madame George” repeat a standard I-IV-V progression throughout. The bass provides rhythmic movement. The percussion remains silent until the very end of the song a little high-hat picks up the pace of the outro. I’ve learned this option from a few other albums I’ve listened to: have the bass serve the rhythmic purpose usually the responsibility of percussion. Chords strummed on a quiet acoustic guitar add rhythmic texture to the accompaniment. In this case it bounces across the song emphasizing the chord changes.

Over this surprisingly engaging music, Morrison sings well-written nostalgic lyrics about a final meeting (or is it George) and departure. Van Morrison leaves a lot open to interpretation. Who or what is Madame Joy and why is the speaker meeting with Madame Joy? Why is she so concerned with the potential arrival of the cops? Why is the speaker leaving on the train and why meet up with Madame Joy before leaving? Even so, it’s more about emotion than details and backstory. Each verse, a heart-captured snapshot of an event. Of this ten minute song, I do feel like the last four minutes are unnecessary. Though this may represent the speaker riding away on the train, it extends the song past the story.

I love all of the lyrics, but the fourth is my favorite today

And then from outside the frosty window raps.
She jumps up and says, “Lord, have mercy I think it’s the cops,”
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below;
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row,
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below.
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame Joy

I like that the startled reaction of Madame Joy gives a glimpse into her personality and lifestyle. The frosty window gives some indication what time of year it may be. We also learn that Madame Joy lives in Dublin and the speaker is taking the train to Sandy Row, which is in Belfast. The song started “down on Cyprus Avenue”, which is also in Belfast. I used Google Maps to figure this out. I get the feeling that the speaker is on Cyprus Avenue and gets hit with memories of Madame Joy, whom he goes to visit in Dublin. The visit isn’t all wonderful, and then heads back home on the train. So this verse helps put more of the story into perspective.

I also like that Madame Joy’s action of “dropping everything she gots down into the street below” will be echoed by the speakers “throwing pennies at the bridges down below” on the train ride. He pictures the “rain, hail, sleet, and snow” saying “goodbye to Madame Joy” which are all forms of precipitation like tears. While the song ends with several reminders to “dry your eyes for Madame Joy.” It’s a great song the way these things reveal themselves upon repeat listenings.

I wish I’d found the rest of the album so rewarding. I will definitely revisit, but I’m taking a break for a while from Van Morrison.

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