The Velvet Underground and Big Star have shown that critical praise and the admiration of fellow artists isn’t always enough to ensure a commercial hit. Van Morrison found it out as well, on (or soon after) this day in 1968. That was when his second album, Astral Weeks, came out…to very little fanfare or notice. Although many consider it one of the finest pop/rock albums of all-time, it fared only moderately well in the record stores and failed to produce any well-known radio staple.
The Irishman, relocated to New York state, had already become well-known for his work in Them and his first hit, 1967’s “Brown-eyed Girl.” However, his relationship with his label, Bang Records had soured, and he was tied up in legal issues with them, which made him temporarily set up a base in Massachusetts, where he played his unique brand of folk in coffee houses, eventually gaining the attention of Warner Bros. After a lot of wrangling and an almost Machiavellian story in its own right, Warner got to sign him and buy out his Bang contract involving Morrison recording deliberately bad songs for Bang and back-alley payoffs including alleged underworld characters.
Finally under the Warner banner, he got down to recording his first record for them. However, the new company’s faith in Van wasn’t as wide as the ocean between Ireland and the U.S. Funding was limited for the album, and as Morrison put it, “I was totally broke…I didn’t have time to sit around pondering.” As it ended, the spur-of-the-moment approach seemed to work! Astral Weeks was finished after three all-day sessions. For the most part, Morrison just wanted a couple of jazz musicians accompanying him and his acoustic guitar – bassist Richard Davis, on stand-up bass as it were, and drummer Connie Kay. Kay remembers Morrison being “shy” and unfocused when it came to the music. He was told to “play whatever I felt like playing. We more or less sat there and jammed.” For all his taciturn nature, Morrison was impressed. “Those types of guys play what you’re gonna do before you do it. That’s how good they are.” Warner added some overdubbed string bits, which annoyed the singer, who declared “they ruined it. They added those strings. I didn’t want strings!”
His opinion changed though as he soon after said “I thought it was closer to the type of music I wanted to put out. It still is, actually.” Many agreed with him. The album consisted of only eight songs, but four of them were seven minutes or longer and the diehard fans consider all of them classics. Among the best-known tracks are the title track, which he describes as “one of those songs when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel…I don’t think I can elaborate on it anymore than that” , “Cypress Avenue” which he often uses to close out his shows, and “Sweet Thing.” However personal the lyrics might appear, Van says “it’s not about me. It’s totally fictional,” adding some tracks he wrote out of a stream-of-consciousness.
Not that many publications noticed it upon its release. The NME did but called it a “pale imitation” of Jose Feliciano. Rolling Stone though compared him to Bob Dylan and called it “unique and timeless”, a position they maintain. They’ve rated it as high as the 19th greatest album of all-time, describing it as “music of such enigmatic beauty that (it) still defies easy, admiring description.” Allmusic and Pitchfork have both given it perfect scores, the latter noticing “an undercurrent of melancholy and desire runs through ‘Brown-eyed Girl’…Astral Weeks brings that yearning to the forefront.” Among its many fans are Elvis Costello who said “there hasn’t been a record with that amount of daring made since.”
As well-received as it is by modern critics, it wasn’t a huge hit. Part of that might come from the minimal advertising Warner did for it, perhaps because there was no obvious radio hit to follow-up “Brown-eyed Girl.” The album hit #55 in the UK, and #27 in Ireland but failed to make the U.S. charts. Eventually though (2001), it did get certified gold here, while in the UK, it’s consistently sold slowly and is now triple-platinum, the best of his non-compilation records.