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After the feisty garage rock of Them and pop success of Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison’s quantum leap with his second studio album Astral Weeks would leave critics and fans grasping at its meaning for the next half-century. Steve Harnell charts the sound of an artist in the grip of radical creative upheaval

Classic Album

Bang label boss Bert Berns and Van Morrison in New York, circa 1967

Could Astral Weeks be the most enigmatic musical masterpiece of all time? After 50 years of almost continual dissection since its release in November 1968, this most elusive of iconic records remains wonderfully unknowable.

Astral Weeks’ themes of mystical transcendence seem like a reaction against the political and societal maelstrom of 1968

What we can say though, with total assurance, is that this is not a classic rock album by any regular definition of that term. Instead, Van Morrison’s second studio LP is a seamless mélange of jazz, folk, blues, country and classical textures. Growing up in Belfast surrounded by his father’s extraordinarily large and diverse record collection that included Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson, Morrison wove all of these influences into the bigger picture of Astral Weeks.

It’s jazz, though, that had the greatest impact on the album. This is a solo record in name only – Astral Weeks is by no means the singular vision of Morrison. Instead, the crack team of jazz session men who played on the album were absolutely key to its success. Astral Weeks is quite simply one of the greatest marriages of convenience of all time – and a creative peak that Van would arguably never reach again. Like the equally lauded Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, this was instinctive art, recorded in double-quick time by musicians collaborating on an almost telepathic level; a handful of studio hours that have now reverberated down the generations. Morrison’s flair for improvisation, honed during his time with Them on the club circuit, was the equal of the assembled team of seasoned session pros. His vocal phrasing, stretching vowels and consonants to breaking point, allied with an obsession with repeating words until they almost lose their meaning, is groundbreakingly audacious.

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