At the bum end of the 1980s barely a week went by in the music press without some mention being made of Astral Weeks. It was often cited as the wellspring for much of the music that I was particularly excited by at that time; the etherealists: Spacemen 3, AR Kane, The Cocteau Twins were all claimed to have emanated from Morrison’s first solo album. Hell, the journalists even managed to convince me that the noisemakers: Loop, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth were supposedly connected in some way.
So I was feverishly intrigued to hear Astral Weeks for the first time and I recall sitting in disbelief as the pastoral strings and gentle bass runs of the title track began to writhe around the, frankly overblown (and very high in the mix) vocals. What followed was, if anything, even more discombobulating; the free jazz ramblings of Beside You, the folk-pop ditty Sweet Thing, The Way Young Lovers Do with its brisk pace and brisk brass and the extended, Dylanesque, streams of consciousness trilogy of Cypress Avenue, Madame George and Ballerina. By the time Slim Slow Slider’s clarinet(!) was fading out to nothing I was at the point of writing to NME and MM to ask for my money back.
…but a strange thing happened. I listened to it again. And then again! And again. And then I copied it onto a C45 (with Kitchens Of Distinction’s Love Is Hell on the other side) and listened to it pretty much non-stop throughout the entire summer of 1989. And for a while, at least, if anyone had been bothered to ask me, I would have proclaimed it the best album ever made, even if it didn’t really sound like any of the music that people who knew about such things had been likening it to.
Not long after, I checked out Moondance, Morrison’s follow up to Astral Weeks and…couldn’t stand it. So I listened, and listened again, and one more time…and still couldn’t stand it! It seemed as though it had been made by an entirely different artist and its hideously smooth, easy listening landscapes felt completely at odds with Astral Weeks’ edginess and unpredictability. So I parked Van Morrison as one of those weird artists that release a single, one off, masterpiece followed by a huge pile of cack and left him alone for a while.
But a few years on a friend of mine was giving away her vinyl and asked me if I wanted to take any. In amongst the Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin albums were Hard Nose The Highway and Veedon Fleece, two of Morrison’s mid 70s offerings. Well, to say I had low expectations was an understatement and, sure enough, the former was terrible…in fact I passed it on to a charity shop not long afterwards. But Veedon Fleece was different and, whilst it has never made its way into my regular rotation, I have always enjoyed its pastoral tones and Irish hues. But it’s not a consistent record and, unlike Astral Weeks, it doesn’t feel as though every song is an essential part of a jigsaw – a few pieces of Veedon Fleece could be happily lost down the back of the sofa as far as I am concerned being somewhat beige and uninspiring – folk rock by numbers, if you will (opener Fair Play and side two’s Cul De Sac and Comfort You are Morrison snooze fests of the worst variety).
However, when it’s good, Veedon Fleece is spectacular. The trio of great songs that properly launch side 1 (once Fair Play has been negotiated), Linden Arden Stole The Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man and Streets of Arklow are all of the highest calibre, equal to almost anything on Astral Weeks and, to my mind, offering an Arcadian warmth that Astral Weeks misses, focusing, as it does on the scruffy urban vistas of Dublin rather than the lush green countryside of rural Eire.
But pride of place has to be the frankly awe inspiring 9 minute long meditation of You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River. I have no idea what he’s on about, I’m not even sure of what he’s doing musically, but I do know that it vies with Astral Weeks as the best song I’ve heard by Mr Morrison and I can’t think there are many tracks out there, by Van, or anyone else for that matter, that have the ability to elevate the listener as effectively.
Rob listened: I know little of Van Morrison, beyond owning ‘Astral Weeks’ and having had brief periods where I wanted to listen to the title track on repeat for hours. I felt very well disposed to ‘Veedon Fleece’ which seemed to me another burbling brook of an album. I love the idea that Van Morrison is like a 24 hour radio station, and each album just an hour spent tuning in to whatever is playing at that given moment. I certainly like him most when he’s at his most stream-of-semi-consciousness. Lots of nice stuff here and some stuff that did sound awfully twee, at least until Steve opened up his record bag…
Nick listened: Irish.