PS Picks: The Enigmatic Nature of Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks' - Pacific Standard

PS Picks: The Enigmatic Nature of Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks'

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
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Van Morrison performs during the 18th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference at Ascend Amphitheater on September 14th, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Van Morrison performs during the 18th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference at Ascend Amphitheater on September 14th, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

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The Enigmatic Nature of Astral Weeks: We're only 10 seconds in to the opening track of 1968's Astral Weeks, and the classical guitar is meandering through a few plucked notes while an upright bass thumps along in accordance; all the while, the drums shuffle along. And there comes Van Morrison's voice in all its youthful splendor, an instrument capable of sharp, warm highs and soft, meditative croons:

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

Those lyrics, like most everything else on Astral Weeks remain, to this day, an enigma. Morrison, who has insisted that the album's stream-of-consciousness spontaneity comes from a purely incorporeal place, has argued that wrestling with their meaning is an act of futility. Astral Weeks is, as he himself once put it, an album of "trance-like explorations."

I'm not sure I really take Morrison at his word here. Nor do many other writers. Lester Bangs, the late critic and all-around rock and roll vagabond, once wrote that, in fact, Astral Weeks is a work bursting with characters, through whom "we are looking at life, in its fullest, and what these people are suffering from is not disease but nature, unless nature is a disease."

Astral Weeks is layered enough that we can have it both ways: We can have the characters—say, Madame George, the main character in a song by the same name, who has his money and his heart stolen by a series of boys—and we can have the album as the artist conceives it: a fluid succession of sounds and words, designed not to evoke a story or even a meaning, but only to leave us with the sublime feeling of what awaits the singer as he ventures in the slipstream, going nowhere in particular.

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

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