You've Never Heard 'Astral Weeks'?!

Note: this is a recurring series in which we ask our impossibly young interns to review classic albums they've never heard before. Our current intern at All Songs Considered is Meg Ruddick.

When I found out I was going to be the new All Songs Considered intern, I realized that I would probably be subjected to some incredulous judgment of my musical knowledge. So, using NPR and Rolling Stone as guides, I made a list of all the albums I thought I should have heard by now.

One of the first on my list was Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. I grew up listening to the Best of Van Morrison disc, so I knew his music. But I hadn't heard any of his early albums in full. In truth, I had never even heard of Astral Weeks before this summer, when just about every music news source was covering Morrison's new tour to perform the 1968 album in its entirety. I finally took an hour a few Sundays ago to sit down and listen to Astral Weeks for the first time.

Van Morrison performs "Sweet Thing" from Astral Weeks at the Hollywood Bowl

I'm not sure what it means, but even after several listens, I can't really remember most of the songs. The lengthy compositions are a mix of improvised bass, strings and flute buried under Morrison's spontaneous mumblings and yelps. This lack of conventional song structure surprised me most about the album. When I think of Van Morrison, I think of blasting horn and sax riffs and finely crafted, sing-along choruses, not seven-minute jams over two chords, like the album's title track.

Despite not having a firm grasp of the music yet, I do enjoy Astral Weeks and think it's a timeless album. Even with 41 years of music between its release and today, I've never heard anything quite like it. It's beautiful and mysterious. Although Morrison's vocal meanderings can be repetitive and tiresome, I think his passion works well with the off-the-cuff style of the songs. I've always loved Morrison's lyrics, and Astral Weeks presents some of the best I've heard: "If I ventured in the slipstream / between the viaducts of your dream / Where immobile steel rims crack / and the ditch in the back roads stop / Could you find me? (from "Astral Weeks").

Of the songs I can clearly remember, my favorites are the lilting "Astral Weeks," the jazzy "The Way Young Lovers Do" and one of my favorite songs of all time, "Sweet Thing." I fell in love with "Sweet Thing" from the "best of" album, and it was great to hear it for the first time in its original context. The album-closing "Slim Slow Slider" is a beautiful and haunting song, but it has one of the most disappointing and abrupt endings I've ever heard. I want resolution, but I realize that the unconventional and unexpected is what Astral Weeks is all about. And, though it is not my favorite of Morrison's, I think it deserves the praise it's gotten over the years.

Listen to NPR's Guy Raz talk with Van Morrison about Astral Weeks.



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