Wednesday, March 18, 2009

40 Years Later, Van Morrison Tackles the Sacred "Astral Weeks" All Over Again

Whether you believe it was for lucrative reasons or for artistic reasons is irrelevant because Van Morrison is reviving Astral Weeks, a landmark album in the lexicon of Twentieth Century music. One of the few rock era works that can stand on par artistically with the best jazz and classical have offered us, Astral Weeks has received another round of revisiting thanks to the recent actions of Van Morrison, the legendary Celtic soul poet-singer. 2008 marked its 40th anniversary and Van felt that was a good, ripe number for getting back at the immortal song cycle in concert. While he has played selections from the 1968 album in concert for years, this is the first time the entire thing has been performed live in its entirety and with all the necessary parts to replicate the album, or at least what Van intended it to sound like. Currently undergoing a tour with the album as the drawing card, Van kicked it off commercially by releasing Astral Weeks- Live at the Hollywood Bowl early in February. It's always a risk to revisit the past so openly but in rare cases it works such as with this venture by Van and Brian Wilson's live adaptation of Pet Sounds and studio release of Smile, his aborted 1967 masterwork. And considering Van hasn't quite taken listeners by storm these past 15 years the way he used to, it also seems like a smart career move.

Van Morrison will continue to put out new work practically per annum, being the prolific spirit he is. 2008's Keep it Simple was his latest studio record and while okay, it was like his previous half dozen albums or so, not counting his collaborations with Linda Gail Lewis and Lonnie Donegan. Not since 1998's Back on Top has a Morrison album sounded even remotely like you haven't heard some of it before. Morrison might just be better off sticking to more projects out of his expected fare like perhaps more purely jazz and Celtic oriented material (the latter of which has been sorely lacking from his work for the past 15 years). There hasn't been a truly impressive album from Van the Man since 1997's The Healing Game or if you're less charitable 1993's Too Long in Exile. Nothing about those two solid works was that challenging or mined fertile artistic ground it should be noted, like 1991's streaky yet incredibly spiritual and personal double-disc Hymns to the Silence. 1989's Avalon Sunset still stands as the last great combination of that deep artistic drive and excellent songwriting, while the last indispensable masterpiece of Van's career was 1979's glorious Into the Music

As great as Into the Music was, it still did not quite touch Astral Weeks, Morrison's unanimously recognized best album (athough some huge fans of Moondance may disagree). It all depends on the ear of the listener rather than irrefutable evidence but what can't be denied is that Astral Weeks has endured as the most groundbreaking and critically adored thing Morrison has ever been associated with and he has been a critics' darling for much of his 45 years in the music industry. Perspective behind the album is needed. After years of playing around his native Belfast, North Ireland, George Ivan Morrison's teenage years of experience paid off when his band Them hit the charts in 1964. Van had cut his teeth since age 11 on R&B, blues, jazz and country music absorbed from his musical family and a childhood diet of listening to music greats in those genres. Though he played no instrumental outstandingly well, he was able to provide guitar, saxophone and harmonica and became perhaps the most original, soulful white singer of the rock era. He seemed just another young snot in the British Invasion scene, partially due to unfair representation by record company advertising that labeled Them as "The Angry Young Them."

While Morrison with Them generated plenty of vital covers of his heroes songs, such as Bobby "Blue" Bland ("Turn on Your Lovelight") and T-Bone Walker ("Stormy Monday Blues"), it only seemed like he was at the top of the heap in a parade of white kids from the UK singing black music. As a songwriter, he did provide classic hits like "Gloria," "Here Comes the Night" and "Mystic Eyes," but it wasn't as if these songs were outside the realm of most blues-based music out of the whole British Invasion. Them's biggest hits closely resembled groups like the Stones, Yardbirds and Pretty Things too much for them to be considered pioneers or originators like the Beatles or the Who were. But Morrison's less raw R&B work showed a true artist bubbling beneath the surface. This is confirmed with listens to his unique approach for instrumental arrangements plus his own penned works like "My Lonely Sad Eyes" or "Don't Look Back" as well as a surreal, earthly cover of Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (complete with reverby piano arpeggios sampled years later by Beck's "Jack-Ass" in 1996). This was no ordinary three-chord rock flash-in-the-pan, which "Gloria" might have given some people the impression he was. 

When, by 1966, Them splintered after several lineup changes that practically left Van the only true member (for example he had session men like Jimmy Page fill in when needed), he embarked on the inevitable solo career. Getting to where he wanted was held up by an uneasy experience at Bang Records, a label owned by renowned hitmaker Bert Berns. Berns oversaw Van's work through 1967, which was distinguished by one of his few top 1o hits, the oldies staple "Brown Eyed Girl." As typically the random tastes of the public go, this enjoyable, breezy love tune is still his most popular even though it is far from one of his best. It prompted the release of an album of similar party-goer R&B, Blowin' Your Mind. The album did not yield a chart showing nor any hit single followup to "Brown Eyed Girl" even though it tried for further chart gold with "Ro Ro Rosey" and "Spanish Rose" (no word on whether he planned "La Vie en Rose" as a followup... I kid, I kid). Still, there's a streak of brilliance even with the off-hand, demo-like nature of the LP- and indeed it was culled from what Morrison intended to be demos for what he truly wanted to do. The way Berns culled an LP from these sessions was a slight that soured his relationship with Berns, who wanted more pop hits. 

The jarringly intriguing and meditative R&B of Blowin' Your Mind, best represented by "T.B. Sheets" and "He Ain't Giving You None," was a precursor to his glory days as a soul renaissance man, yet even these stellar songs did not hint at the direction Astral Weeks would take him in. After Berns died of a sudden heart attack in December of '67, Morrison's career was nearly torpedoed by a legal battle with Berns' widow Ilene. Ilene Berns inherited contracts including Morrison's and vowed to keep him tied to the label as an asset, still upset and believing her husband's death to be brought about mainly by the stressful relationship with the steel-headed Irish rogue Morrison. She attempted deportation when she realized he had not achieved U.S. citizenship due to unfinished documents by her husband but this was overcome when Van's American girlfriend Janet "Planet" Rigsbee agreed to marry him. Van was contractually obligated for a certain number of recorded songs for Bang Records and Berns' publishing company Web IV so a session in which he brazenly reeled off thirty-six nonsense tunes for it. Thanks to managerial work, he only needed to do this plus release a single and include two compositions from Web IV publishing for his next album. 

Ultimately, there was no single, but 1967's "Madame George" (nee "Madame Joy") and "Beside You" would be the ones attributed to Web IV publishing, although revamped beyond recognition from their early, bare bones demos. With a new contract from Warner Bros. plus a new producer to work with in Lewis Merenstein, Van felt freer to explore his desired territory, often performing live in the Boston area (where he now lived) with college student musicians while he strummed on acoustic guitar. He had been doing this even without a contract, going from the high profile of top 40 AM radio and appearances on shows like American Bandstand to small club gigs with little to no fanfare. A famous tale involves him being asked at a live show to come to the stage alongside an early version of future party R&B luminaries the J. Geils to sing "Gloria"- then less closely associated with Van and Them than with another Morrison in the late 60s, Jim from the Doors. Not to mention the top 10 hit carbon copy by American garage rockers The Shadows of the Knight. Van was being booed because nobody recognized him, prompting lead singer Peter Wolf to indignantly question "Don't you know who this is? This is the man who wrote the song!"

Eventually, after all the hardships of being married with a child (daughter Shana born in 1968) and nearly penniless thanks to the usual industry screw jobs, Van secured appearances as part of a trio setting with flautist John Payne and bassist Tom Kielbana. This is likely where his unique sort of folk-jazz muse found its genesis. But Lewis Merenstein practically replaced this trio for the recording sessions, although Payne dropped in on some tracks with flute and soprano sax on "Slim Slow Slider." Merenstein, steeped in jazz, decided to get musicians with a similar background by providing top notch sidemen in guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay (future member of the Modern Jazz Quartet), bassist Richard Davis and percussionist Warren Smith Jr. These musicians formed the basis of the instrumentation with some string and horn parts overdubbed onto the live-in-the-studio tracks. Conflicting reports on the way the sessions were conducted have come up throughout the years but it seems that Van certainly did stay rather laissez-fare and quiet with his hired hands. He did not mingle so much as he gave basic, hazy instructions. 

What occurred was that there were lead sheets handed to the musicians and they were allowed to improvise throughout. Leading along was Morrison strumming the chords on his acoustic guitar, not always in a separate booth as previously mentioned, and usually providing guide vocals that were of course wiped out when he overdubbed the exquisite vocals heard on the final cut. Now, a combination of elements need to go together and mesh extremely well for an album to achieve that classic moniker and Astral Weeks scores a 10 on practically every approach, from lyrics to musicianship to production to arrangement to vocals. It's been called a song cycle over the years, so if you're sick of hearing that phrase then too bad. Better get used to it because it really is a song cycle. Let me preach to ya... The songs, for the most part, are one atmosphere, one narrative, all linked by Morrison's allusions to a romantic-era notion of love and growing up, all rife with imagery not unlike that of an impressionist painting. Van talks of feelings but does just as much describing of events and sights around him. Never again would Van's lyrics be so evocative or poetic, even when the music behind the words was as mesmerizing as ever.

The phrasing around the vocals Van the Man provides is apparent from the very first track, the title song "Astral Weeks." Van's way with words is breathtaking as he even adds on syllables for a novel effect (e.g. "Would you kiss-a my eyes?"). "Astral Weeks" sets the stage for what's to come by looking at the concept or rebirth or reincarnation. Van's lyrics would often be a little indulgent in the future but it's hard to top the Dylan-esque visionary work from Astral Weeks. Images like "Viaducts of your dream," "Where immobile steel rims crack" and "Talkin' to Huddie Leadbetter" are evocative ones at the very least. The song hushes toward the end with the string section oscillating and the bass bending notes behind Van's gentle crooning about being "In another time" and "In another place/In another face." Jay Berliner's guitar work borders on the classical throughout this LP and nowhere is that more effective or even Spanish-sounding than on the next tune, "Beside You," a song with practically no chorus, bridge or semblance of arrangement that one hears in a more standard pop song. It's not a masterpiece composition but it makes up for its lack of melodic ideas and structure wholeheartedly through the swirling, inhaling pulse of the instrumentation and Van's improvisatory vocal command. 

It's startling to hear how he can turn a seemingly one-note song into such a brilliant showpiece of jazzy folk. How phrases are repeated- take a listen to "Six bell chime/Six bell chime" or the captivating "You breathe in, you breathe out/You breathe in, you breathe out"- is further proof that Morrison was already a master at his craft and an artistic emoter of the pains and anguishes of life, all by the age of 23 as well. It's a rambling, ruminating collection of lyrics, matched by its musical approach. The possibly of it being a random, difficult-to-follow, stream-of-consciousness aside, "Beside You" is an innovative, majestic entry for Astral Weeks. It's one of the few tracks devoid of strings and for good reason as strings would only clutter the sound too much. It's fine the way its. Furthermore, "Beside You" combines poetic descriptions with what could be excerpts of conversation, juxtapositions lyrically that this album manages to pull off effortlessly where any mortal album might fail. The most everlasting classic from the album is the third one, "Sweet Thing." Bringing back in the strings while going even more up-tempo, "Sweet Thing" has been pointed to as the definitive example of Van's Celtic folk leanings. 

Once again, the imagery in a song from this landmark work is as vivid as any song in the rock era or under any 20th century medium of music. It's the closest that audial art has ever gotten to impressionist paintings. On "Sweet Thing" in particular, the urgency in the lyrics is at its highest. We have Van's trusty allusions to "Gardens all misty wet with rain" and a girl with "The champagne eyes" that reoccur throughout Astral Weeks. Also interesting is how he describes his intentions by beginning thought fragments with the word "and" (e.g. "And I shall drive my chariots down your street and cry"). It rolls off like more stream-of-consciousness brilliance and you'd think Van was channeling James Joyce, Artur Rimbaud or Dylan Thomas, just a few of his many poet idols. Van is one of the few artists who pulls off such heady work without sounding too indulgent or pretentious. The darting, dramatic string arrangement only increases the longing and emotion put forth by all involved on "Sweet Thing." With his incredible oeuvre, a few people may get lost and give up along the way, but the ones Morrison does entice with his music will forever be given pleasure by his greatest work. That's the rub on his legend. 

Of course, there are the dividing lines with his best stuff because one who appreciates Moondance might find Astral Weeks too artsy, acoustic, high-minded and not nearly as catchy. "Sweet Thing" is one of the pivotal compositions in an already stellar songbook. More blues-based, yet this is cancelled out by adding in violin, flute and harpsichord touches, would be the torch song "Cyprus Avenue," one of the few Astral Weeks tunes Van saw fit to put in his set lists for years to come. When he went in a direction more geared to R&B/soul with horns and rhythmic drums becoming much more pronounced than on Astral Weeks, "Cyprus Avenue" found new life as a set closing extravaganza. Another of the coming-of-age tales, "Cyprus Avenue" captures the youthful angst and exuberance straight from the streets, as if it's a re-imagining of Van's youth in Belfast. Think of the way Bruce Springsteen weaved stories from the street in his early days, namely on 1973's The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (still Bruce's most honest masterpiece in this author's opinion because it never needed a cinematic, grandiose, Phil Spector layout to hit the spot like Born to Run needed). 

Like that early Springsteen before Jon Landau and socio-political concerns turned Springsteen's music tighter and more regimented, Van presents himself like a street poet. Unlike Bruce's wholly charged-up American-cum-New Jersey viewpoint, Van has a definite different, literally foreign background to offer, reflected all the more by the dichotomy from being raised in North Ireland to now residing, as a young, married man, in the New World (New England to be exact). Whatever the musical differences, the lyrics and vocal ingenuity suggests the song cycle concept is indeed a valid point because it's almost interchangeable with "Astral Weeks" and "Sweet Thing." Now, that's not a negative point at all, only an observation on just how thematically linked the tracks here tend to get. A total break from the acoustic-based arrangements of the first four tracks, and the last three, comes with the jazz-steeped "The Way Young Lovers Do." In this up-tempo, big band setting, Van's lyrics about young love sound more celebratory than melancholy or unnerved, which the previous four songs do sound by comparison. Nonetheless, Van demonstrates he can also sing magnificently in a blustery, swinging rhythm while still using his range to its fullest.

Some people, critics and fans alike, found the abrupt difference of "Young Lovers" to be a cheesy step in the vein of a Chicago or Blood, Sweet and Tears who were around by then but ahd yet to experience their highest commercial acceptance. But it's a welcome change since it breaks the mood a little without disrupting the flow. A mediocre jazzy tune and all of a sudden, Astral Weeks loses momentum. Good thing "Young Lovers" isn't. It offers acoustic guitars as per usual with this album, but this is overshadowed by the fact the drums are pushing the beat rather than complimenting with light fills. Add in strings, which are thrown in with authority, leading to fantastic staccato bursts and some descending licks during the chord progression. Kudos to the string arranger because nowhere else on Astral Weeks are the use of strings more noticeable or more enjoyable. This is a prelude to Van's (sans strings) modern jazz classic "Moondance," only not as cool and breezy. If slowed down a little, one could picture "Young Lovers" as a fine piece for Sinatra. It's followed by the most bittersweet track, "Madame George," long believed to be written about a drag queen despite Van's insistence it was not written about that at all. It's early title "Madame Joy" would also lead one to that conclusion. 

"Madame George" is like the sad farewell for the album, though it is only the third-to-last track, in comparison to the rather open-ended musings of the other tracks. It's like a foreshadowing to all the great Morrison tracks that run several minutes but use the lengthy running time to build up the drama ("And the Healing Has Begun," "Listen to the Lion," "It's All in the Game/You Know What They're Writing About," live versions of "Caravan" all have this same tactic used to wonderful effect). While few of the songs go under 5 minutes (indeed the average running time being just under 6 minutes), "Madame George" takes the length right under the 10 minute mark and every second is worth savouring. Rather than go for more grand statements, Van uses the final two tracks for a bit more modest purposes, though "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider" are excellent in their own right. "Ballerina," the oldest composition of any here as it reportedly was started in 1965, finds Van writing the most conventional chorus of the album. Few if any of the choruses beforehand this one on Astral Weeks stand out from the verses but on "Ballerina," there's no mistaking it as the chorus when Van sings "All you gotta do/Is ring the bell/And step right up/Step right up/Step right up/Just like a ballerina." 

This chorus part is given many variations vocally as Van uses his trademark stuttering, repetition and melisma abilities very well, as expected if you're used to Van's style. If you haven't heard any of the singing I describe, well surely you have heard "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and if you've ever sporadically listened to classic rock radio you have. If so, you'll understand. If not, just take a listen to it, put up next to Van's singing work on Astral Weeks, especially "Ballerina." Randy Bachman's humourous stuttering and repetition may seem like a harkening back to the days where doo-wop acts used onomatopoeia or gibberish wordplay but it has much more to do in common with the signature style of Mr. Van Morrison in fact. So whether Randy Bachman did it on purpose or without actually attempting to ape/parody Van, he managed to make "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" the most Van Morrison-like vocal that the actual Van Morrison never actually sang. As for "Ballerina" itself, the song works the way many of the other songs do on the LP as pertains to free-form singing and lyrics. 

There's plenty of variety in the way Morrison employs syllables in a line too, much like Dylan could have a song where some lines were short and terse while others went for busy wordplay (similarly attempted to the already referenced Springsteen, though not always to great effect, on his debut Greetings from Asbury Park). On "Ballerina," some lines are as simple as "Spread your wings" while others have syllables packed like sardines in a tin can, e.g. "But something deep in my heart tells me I'm right and I don't think so." That very line is also a great example of the way Van can transition from one line in a lower register to the very next in a range an octave or so higher. He'll even leave pauses at times before adding in more of the words which leads one to believe a lot of the musical ideas were generated after the lyrics, and it wouldn't be surprising knowing Van's love for poetry. Sometimes Morrison hangs on a word with his vocal flourishes, turning the word "right" in the final "Step right up" of the chorus into a nine or ten syllable word! "Writing" in "You know I saw the writing on the wall" gets twelve or thirteen syllables. It's like he took a linguistics course, the way he can exploit syllables, phrases and whole words.

Van's way with vocalized words was unprecedented at the time for a pop singer. His use of repeating or stuttering over them was much like the scatting jazz's vocal greats made popular (More proof of Louis Armstrong's contributions to 20th Century Music!). Yet this was even before Van had become truly immersed in emulating jazz greats, tending to be more influenced by singers like Big Bill Broozny, Hank Williams, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ray Charles. Van hadn't made these vocal quirks so clear in his work as part of Them, but starting with Astral Weeks he became the most inventive and soulful white singer around in the rock and roll world. As mentioned, Morrison, according to Lewis Merenstein, wasn't so well versed on jazz at this point, although certainly along the line in his career he became more intrigued by it based on the way he infused jazz into later songs and how he has used it in recent years- even cutting a decent, jazz record (falling more to the bluesier jazz side, where Van is more at home) with Georgie Fame in 1996 entitled How Long Has This Been Going on? No song is more enhanced by Van's strong vocal performance than "Ballerina" it must be said. 

The instruments on "Ballerina" are more locked into the rhythm than usual, save for Richard Davis' twangy bends on the double bass, so Van's singing takes centre stage and does not fall short of the mark whatsoever. So with material this strong, singing should be a piece of cake you ask? Well, Van attempted a similarly active vocal attack for the so-called "spiritual follow-up" to this one, 1974's much misunderstood Veedon Fleece. But on Veedon Fleece, a fine album itself even if it's not Astral Weeks part 2, there are issues with pitch and timbre that hamper things a tad. In the grand scheme of things, Van has scaled back the urgency in his vocals over the years, going for a more relaxed thing since the early 90s. This change came after pretty much a period of similarly styled vocals from 1980 (the start of his rather spiritual awakening, an uncommercial religious journey so to speak) to 1991 (the end of that exotic phase and the beginning of his era as a jack-of-all-trades nostalgic cultivator of his all-time favourite musics). Age and a nicotene habit- that has likely been put to an end resulting in his warm, smooth vocals of recent years- are probably the main factors for Van's 1964-1974 period being unparalleled by anything afterward. 

1975-1979 found Van's vocals getting gruffer and, while less urgent and reliant on his upper register, he was still very powerful as a singer. The declining excellence of his vocals proves that in 1968 his dexterity, range and versatility as a vocalist was likely at its all-time peak. So with Astral Weeks, namely with "Ballerina," it is an opportunity to see an always great singer at his greatest vocally. Musically, "Ballerina" also uses aspects quite appropriate for such thematic material with flute and vibraphone. The strings hardly make their presence known and rightly so as they're more fluid and soaring than intense and fortissimo, if you will, like at other times on Astral WeeksWithout some of these incredibly spot-on instrumental quirks, Astral Weeks likely isn't the near-perfect record it turned out to be. Lewis Merenstein eternally deserves credit for his enlistment of players, the same core of which Van turned down when sessions began a year later for his awaited follow-up Moondance. And of course that also turned out to be the proper move for Van's move onto a purer R&B path, like a continuation of what he started in Them. But for Astral Weeks, this group of musicians used were the perfect choice. 

The final song here is the oddly calm "Slim Slow Slider," which features just light acoustic guitar, bass and a soprano sax part that shows how that instrument was quite underrated and overlooked, at least that's before Kenny G smashed its reputation into a million multi-platinum, odorous elevator muzak pieces. "Slim Slow Slider" could be adapted into a jazz piece by the right person and made even more resonant but we're left to wait and wonder I suppose. The song is rather brief in light of all the long-winding pieces, clocking in at just 3:16. There's a reason for this as the song segued into a freak-out sort of avant-garde breakdown with the soprano sax trilling and wildly tooting away dissonantly, sort of in the style of an Ornette Coleman free jazz jam. Merenstein reportedly felt the free jazz segment to be too long and too distracting to keep in the master cut, so it received a good, healthy edit down from somewhere around 8-9 minutes to just around three and a half. Actually, that probably made it more fitting to be the final track. It's difficult to end an album with as many climaxing moments as Astral Weeks so why not end it with an unexpectedly weird moment? It's not as if other tracks didn't get edits but "Slim Slow Slider" received the most impactful one. 

What is heard on the finished product is a snippet of that "freak out" with echoes emanating from the slapping of the acoustic guitar to give it that "lost in the distance" vibe. It's only a few seconds of this bizarre stuff before the fadeout puts a stop to it. An abrupt, strange finish indeed but perhaps when an album is like Astral Weeks, the best way to end it is in classic anticlimactic fashion. Well, like practically everything attempted here, the ending does its job and "Slim Slow Slider" is a fitting salute for the 8-track, 47 minute journey. Every single song is capable of being someone's favourite from the album and how rare is that we can say that about any album? Sure there's only eight but not a moment wasted. Astral Weeks is getting a whole new crowd and attention with Van dragging the songs from the songbook for live adaptations, a sort of wrinkle that he claims is truer to the real thing he wanted. This is mostly because of his long-held belief that the studio is constricting and puts limits on performance. With this post, I have attempted to sort through the hype and glare in order to look at the album itself and analyze just what makes it arguably one of the top 10 albums ever made. 

Sure, Astral Weeks is a song cycle but it also deserves some praise for pulling off what it did without really relying on a clear concept (you know, like The Wall's, er, "Wall" or Tommy's "Deaf, dumb and blind kid 'Pinball Wizard'".... or Styx's Mr. Roboto). Far too many albums have looked for a concept to artificially raise the quality or artistic achievement. Too many have thought that their album needed that. Far too many albums have been rated much higher than they deserve due to this, so I suppose it can work in the artists' favour after all. But still, a concept-less work once in a while will suffice, believe it or not all you philosophically-minded Pink Floyd fans. Sometimes a concept can make an album weighed down by its own adherence to plot details, or lack of for that matter (parts of The Wall I just don't get, not to mention I find it overrated overall). After all, Pete Towshend had done nothing but attempt story lines to the Who's work from 1968-1973 and even he resorted to an album that's concept was in the thematic material with the sobering, depressed The Who by the Numbers. Van adding an actual story to Astral Weeks or any of his albums would be a giant risk. 

Van may have created what they call a song cycle, but Astral Weeks just stands as an exemplary piece of art and a reminder of how the Long-Player had evolved to become the dominant form of musical expression after years of the tide shifting (Indeed, Astral Weeks came out in November of 1968, a year where sales of LPs finally outstripped those of 45s, aka singles). It also signaled the start of a vital, classic solo artist who would become one of the rock era's true standout singers and songwriters. It must have been a bit of a shock to those that only knew the name Van Morrison because of the Top 10 success of "Brown Eyed Girl" just over a year earlier, a success that for any mere mortal would force them to bear the burden of having "Flash in the pan" and/or "One Hit Wonder" written all over them. For Van, "Brown Eyed Girl" was a shot in the dark hit and certainly not a sign of where he was headed and surely did not foreshadow the stunning arrival of Astral Weeks. I'm not griping with people who go to a Van concert only to hear "Gloria" and "Brown Eyed Girl" (and many seemingly were there for that when I saw the man live in concert several months ago). Let them have their preoccupation with those songs. 

Really, as long as "Brown Eyed Girl" is earning Van royalties, he's free to do whatever he wants and be financially secure. I suppose not incredibly secure or satisfied because why else would he be attempting a retrospective look at his opus LP some four decades down the road. All the power to him! But whatever preconceptions people had of him in 1968, Van Morrison erased the element of surprise from his future work for good once he put out Astral Weeks in the late autumn of '68. Too popular to be a cult artist, not popular enough to be a superstar, Van's career has taken many twists and turns as anybody's will over 45 years. But he has had such a minimal amount of dead-end moments for that length of time in the business- a business he has made no bones about reminding us he can hardly stand, sometimes to the point of tedium or boredom. And he never has had a "washed up" moment like a Dylan or even Neil Young despite being prolific. Perhaps the past 15 years have not been a source of constant magic like his 70s prime, but that's asking a hell of a lot from a guy who brought us Astral Weeks, one masterful LP among several. No matter what, Astral Weeks will be the crowned jewel in his repertoire of albums.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

When Gloom Became Redemptive: Joy Division's Influential Use of Depression as Musical Art

Rock and roll has been typically viewed as an upbeat, enjoyable, optimistic music even when it has seemed savage, ribald or raunchy. Rock and roll never really seemed depressed, dark or gloomy in its infancy or even just after the British Invasion when serious-minded folk found a way to worm into the consciousness of rock listeners in the mid-60s. But then there's a little factor we call drugs. Yes, d-r-u-g-s. Shocking that they played such a large role, no? Ok sarcasm aside, the way these great musicians we now immortalize were creatively driven was usually through ingesting amphetamines and smoking marijuana. The advent of LSD suddenly drove popular rock outfits to complex, avant-garde, free-form songs that incorporated Eastern, drug, political and intellectual influences while borrowing from other exotic, non-mainstream musical avenues like classical or jazz. Even in the peace and love era, the politics of the era combined with the inevitable drug abuse, turned the music bitter, angry and menacing. Witness the Stones go from the sexually-charged, sly rebellion of "Satisfaction" to the drug-hazed, violent and threatening "Gimme Shelter" in just four years). Depression has long been a central theme to great art but even the depressed and disillusioned rockers kept it under wraps in order to provide a good face and keep commercial fortunes prosperous. Why disappoint the kiddies and the chicks with your "woe is me" melancholy? There were innovators who made their personal feelings well known like Dylan or even more nakedly, John Lennon. 

The singer-songwriter movement was dominated by "confessional" singers like James Taylor who made their neuroses well known, whether you liked it or thought it was pretentious, Me-Generation hippie babble... Oops. Did I say too much? (I do prefer laid-back JT because he was relatively relaxed and at home with his whiteness, save for overbearingly cheesy pap like "How Sweet it is"). Well, when punk and then Joy Division made their arrivals, the confessional nature of rock music was laid out on the table so bare that it would have made Arthur Janov blush and run for the hills... after asking for their money so he could conduct therapy on them. No punks or post-punks were lining up for that, except Tears for Fears I suppose. With the punk movement, the idea of keeping a straight face or towing the company line when it came to "rocking out" became seen as phony, inauthentic. Saying what you really felt, no matter how many feathers it ruffled, became the order of the day. Of course, trying to continually shock and offend was a demanding, no-win game that even the anger-spewing Sex Pistols couldn't keep up without looking stale. And the future rants of John(ny Rotten) Lydon even seemed like "wink-wink" tirades at times, done to uphold his image of being the ultimate anarchist (not saying it's fake whatsoever, but let's face it- even Mr. Lydon can't be pissed at the world 24/7). After all, Johnny liked artsy stuff like Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, Can and Lou Reed. But for unfortunately prophetic reasons, the inner torment expressed by Ian Curtis' lyrics, augmented by his Joy Division bandmates' spine-tingling music, was the most genuine ever witnessed to that point in popular vocal music. It changed the way bands could express their blues. 

Yes, Black Sabbath was one of the first bands to take the power trio format to make dark and demonic sludge that became known as heavy metal. Sabbath may have reveled in depression and darkness, but mostly did so in a heavy, fist-raised stance that spoke of youthful complacency, drugged-out misery and showed an interest in the black arts. For metal, Sabbath were the forefathers of taking depressed, gloomy relationship with life, further explored by Metallica and the Death metal genre. But as for the rest, Joy Division can be labeled torchbearers of the stye. Their detached, ominous way of looking at the world brought the use of depression and gloom as redemptive art, to a level even Lennon or folk chameleon Nick Drake had never touched in their lowest of moments. It set the template for the travels through the unknown made by luminaries like Elliot Smith, Robert Smith of the Cure, Radiohead and Kurt Cobain. It even can be attributed as a genesis for, I hate to say it, EMO rock and culture, although that's a thin connection and most EMO whiners could not even hope to hold a candle to the studious, literary-gifted Ian Curtis. So what was it about Joy Division that made them that important and influential? Why did they become what they did after starting off as just dreary, artsy punk rockers? Any book on the group and/or Curtis' life might inform you, not to mention the films 24 Hour Party People (about the heyday of Factory Records) or the black-and-white Ian Curtis docudrama Control, a riveting 2007 film by Anton Corjbin. But I'm here to summarize and analyze. 

After forming in 1977 in Macclesfield, a grey old suburb of Manchester, the band then known as Warsaw exhibited punk influences but also touched on underground, scarier facets of rock. These artists who made a profound impact on the guys in Joy Division were not considered exclusive to the punk field of course but the Doors, Roxy Music, Lou Reed/the Velvet Underground (the forerunner of practically every art-rock group since) and David Bowie were major influences. Joy Division owes a lot of their innovation to the lesser known German kraut rock movement distinguished by bands like Can, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, who would come to the attention of many, not just Joy Division, with their use of electronic elements in their work. To their credit, Joy Division was not about submitting to the demons but Ian Curtis could not conquer his in the end. Curtis brought a gift for poetry to his already significant ability as a commanding, deep-voiced lead singer not unlike a Mancunian version of Jim Morrison. Because of these factors, even the more true-to-punk-rock recordings of their days as Warsaw were much different than the average band, we got something that would later become known as post-punk- another label to satisfy critics like me and make us more able to throw around terms to compare and contrast. However, there was nothing too gloomy about the music on 1978's EP An Ideal for Living. The heavily poetic, energetic crunch of these tracks only slightly hints at what was to come. On An Ideal for Living, "Warsaw," "Failures" and "No Love Lost" were power chord extravaganzas with the same kind of clever, yet amateurish aesthetic to guitar and bass by Bernard Sumner (aka Dicken or Albrecht) and Peter Hook respectively, that we'd come to relish. 

Those used to hearing Joy Division fronted by a bellowing, brooding voice would be startled to hear a rather normal-pitched punk shouter Curtis but there's no mistaking the others, which also included the propulsive, aerobic drumming of Stephen Morris. "Leaders of Men" was the only slow tempoed of the four and probably the least melodic too, gravitating toward a primitive style that groups like Mark E. Smith's the Fall would make their forte. But listening to their first EP does not reveal just how distant and disturbed Joy Division's music could potentially be. The biggest ingredient in that coming to fruition was eccentric, brilliant, but troubled producer Martin Hannett. But before they ever hooked up with Hannett, Joy Division (as they became minted by late 1978 to some controversy because it was a name derived from what the Nazis called their brothels during World War II) were just another bunch of dissonant punks out of Manchester, overshadowed even by local stars like the Buzzcocks or the Fall. But working out of the much lauded Factory Records label lended "street cred" to the take-no-prisoners Joy Division. Paired with Hannett, they all of a sudden became the most adventurous-sounding of all the post-punk acts, even being mentioned by future critics and fans as the originators of post-punk in the first place. When it comes to their own brand of punk era expression, as Sumner later explained, to paraphrase, it was not a matter of saying "fuck you" so much as a matter of saying "We're fucked." An inner reflection rather than a raised middle finger to the world. A passive method, though no less heartfelt. 

What Hannett accomplished was give them the direction they truly needed, recording with an emphasis on sound effects, tape loops, synthesizer overdubs and echo, all of which brought out a liveliness even Joy Division concerts couldn't hope to replicate. Hannett was the missing link to take what was already an intriguing unit of musicians who thought outside the box and make them a phenomenal, groundbreaking band. Nobody seemed to ever try or accomplish telling a dark story through a haunting soundscape quite the way Joy Division did. To their credit, they weren't all stoic white boys devoid of soul. They had a keen sense of rhythm and syncopation, mostly thanks to Morris, although it was still a collective effort. Much like Bowie's funky but spacey Station to Station, Joy Division had a love of dance music out of Germany or Philadelphia and even the music coming out of disco clubs. Their rebirth as New Order would definitely demonstrate that to be the case. Some have had the inaccurate notion that Curtis would have hated New Order's immersion into electronica- although their turn toward being poppier and more commercially engaging than Joy Division ever was would probably not have been Curtis' cup of tea. But in truth, he was the first one in the group who positively espoused the merits of Kraftwerk. So what was it about Hannett that made the music bubble and pop in order to achieve its arty goals, if you will? Well, his clean, but not sterile, production made the guitars sound powerful, like jets descending down on a runway. It made the bass a rumbling lynchpin amidst the noise as "Hooky" played around with his lead guitar styled fills or chords. 

Years later he'd begin playing riffs- or hooks, excuse the inevitable pun- and melodies in the bass's high register with New Order. Meanwhile, the vocals were given the prominence an Ian Curtis deserved though sometimes burying them in the mix was the proper avenue depending on a song. Stephen Morris's crisp drums- sometimes electronic ones were substituted for the normal kit- were like pistons whirring in the background, keeping it together while occasionally branching off on busy, blistering fills a la a some sort of more restrained Keith Moon prototype. Morris didn't pay a lot of attention to crash cymbal, preferring his hi-hat and the rumble he could get from his toms while playing an entrancing drum pattern. Without Hannett, Joy Division's story is wholly different and they perhaps don't sound as entrenched in that so-called gothic blackness that paints a vivid, disturbed, yet glorious drawing. While the band's impact on the American market was not fully realized until after Ian Curtis' suicide in May 1980, they were able to turn aheads right away in 1979 in the UK starting with the tremendous single "Transmission," a truly chilling masterpiece of production and scope. On this song, Curtis is captivating, transfixed within his own poetic fury and his vocals take on a new level of passion ("Dance, dance, dance, dance/Dance to the radio" is like a mantra rather than an order or call-to-arms like "Anarchy in the UK" or "White Riot"). That's not all that's worth gushing over, as a raga-like synthesizer backing (plus a chiming high pianette on top of that) gives it an East Indian touch. 

As for the instrumentalists on "Transmission," there's Morris' mechanical drum beat punctuated by sonic booms from the snare and a thunder-rattling low tom-tom, Hook's hypnotic bass and Sumner's simple but striking guitar lines. It all turns "Transmission" into the blueprint- nay, the standard- for their best up-tempo rockers. Also in 1979 came their most complete product yet, an actual LP. With their acclaimed, classic debut Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division hit the ground running. Now, Ian Curtis was a showman in the strangest sense as his herky-jerky dance moves on stage were eerily similar to the twitches of an epileptic, an affliction Curtis himself suffered with and could not be cured of ultimately. These struggles with seizures contributed to the dark curtain over the group's work and led to erratic behaviour and eventual suicide for Ian Curtis, but even his singing bore the resemblance to an epileptic either in contemplation or on the verge of a fit. As the posthumous Still (released 1981, a B-minus rating from me) and the very much necessary compilation Substance 1977-1980 (released 1988, an A rating from me) showed, there was plenty of other work done in their short prime that glistened with creativity from the depths of the abyss. What was there beyond the initial releases before Curtis' death? Well, the spirited, punky "Digital," the steely, sweeping "Autosuggestion," the brutally angered "Glass," the neurotic "Ice Age," the cold, mechanical "Walked in Line," the cool, fearful yet funky "From Safety to Where?..." the mellotron-driven, dissonant "Something Must Break," and the raw punk power charged "The Kill." 

However, the most incredibly mesmerizing of these tracks is most certainly the searingly painful, climaxing "The Only Mistake." It comes complete with another hypnotizing bass riff that the whole song is based around. You get Curtis going from low croon to impassioned scream and back while Morris' drums hardly ever sounded better, technically and technologically (Hannett providing an unforgettable phasing effect on the hi-hat). All these tracks date from various points in their sessions with Hannett leading up to Unknown Pleasures (Grade A in my book), their debut, and one can see the progression as the dates get later into the spring and summer of '79 and they get around the studio a little bit. They go from totally green, infectious art-punk go-getters into complete masters of their domain within months. Even instrumental noodlings like "Excercise One," "Komakino" and "Incubation" showed their experimental nature ran deep an did not actually need vocals to sustain drama. While they had proven they could do the booming, pilled-up, frenetic rock, the Unknown Pleasures sessions, and the album itself, had them branching out a bit, trying more chord changes and speeds. That said, "Disorder" and the absolutely fearsome "Shadowplay" are as exciting and cutting edge as rock gets in 1979. But this album goes further, with thought-out, cinematic pieces to be had. "She's Lost Control" is the most adventurous number by far, incorporating synthesizers en masse while Peter Hook's bass once again takes a starring role instrumentally and Morris pounds out a repetitive drum beat, utilizing electronic drum noises as Curtis emits a foreboding deep baritone, perhaps the most tense, disarming, yet strangely at ease vocal of any Joy Division song. 

"She's Lost Control" is a harrowing, gripping trip through the dark, chronicling the misfortune of a girl tormented by her past and perhaps recurring seizures (hence "She's lost control again"). To see it performed live and in person was to experience the true tension as Curtis's stage presence drove the point home with authority. The furious overtones were never more present than on this LP but even "She's Lost Control" is somewhat danceable, as is the similarly toned "Wilderness." The same can't be said for the quasi-metal drudgery of "New Dawn Fades" and "Interzone" (sung by Hook) which come off as the most garage-rocking, bitterly punk tracks you'll find on Unknown Pleasures... next to the frightening hopelessness of "Day of the Lords," of course. "Day of the Lords" is Curtis' most arresting and forceful vocal here. "Day of the Lords" is such a glorious listen that it's like taking a walk through hell but actually enjoying it as Curtis blurts "Where will it end?/Where will it end?" while synthesizers soar over top of a song dominated by the metal leanings of Sumner's guitar work. Meanwhile, there are lumbering, turtle-paced songs on the album too, but hardly ever do you find yourself getting bored, checking your watch and pressing skip. The majestic Curtis and Joy Division keep you on your toes and one will find it too grating to listen to the funeral "Candidate" (the weakest track on the album but not totally worthless whatsoever) and "I Remember Nothing." 
These have soundtrack levels of analysis and drama, building up the mechanical unease with production genius and musical patience. Both of the aforementioned tracks are very gothic, bone-chilling slices of Joy Division. 

While the dance and electronica influences are kept at arms length, they're not at all absent from Unknown Pleasures. "She's Lost Control" threw in the synths but "Insight" gives odd, electronic bits a bigger role with a laser-show breakdown at one point, reminiscent of some gun battle you might hear in Star Wars. Not to mention its sound effects (Hannett loved throwing in noises of chaos like breaking glass, which acted upon Nick Lowe's base instincts in "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" indeed) and another electronic drum pad for Stephen Morriss to tap on, whilst Peter Hook takes full command with another melodic bass line. Curtis sings a song of defiance to fear and a comfort in nostalgia, like the moments where one comes to grips with depression or pain. Unknown Pleasures received quite a bit of attention in the music press in the UK, launching the band into the shine of the spotlight, somewhere where Curtis was even more at difficulty with than his anonymous role before. His epilepsy was taking over his life with no end in sight while he carried on an illicit affair with a Belgian journalist he met, while still with his wife Deborah (the two eloped as teenagers in 1976). He addressed this aspect of his life with the masterpiece of the group's short-lived career, his unintentional eulogy "Love Will Tear us Apart." One of the great singles of the 80s, kicking it off with brilliance no less, it told a tale of the ultimate destruction of love, torn down in a complete abandonment of beauty and grace. Pre-dating most of the 80s wave of British new wavers and post-punkers wearing their heart on their sleeve, "Love Will Tear us Apart" has a disturbed, yet infectious melody while Sumner plays an unforgettably light, ghostly synthesizer melody. 

Shortly after this single, released in April 1980 b/w "These Days," Curtis finally became despondent enough after all the struggles with epilepsy to end his life, hanging himself in his Macclesfield home on May 18, 1980 right before Joy Division was to conduct their first tour of the US. The true scope of Joy Division's excellence kept pouring out after Curtis' tragic demise. Another single, the majestic "Atmosphere" b/w "Dead Souls," hit the market. Featuring tribal drums and glorious snyth washes, one resembling a bird or stuttered wind chimes, "Atmosphere" is a redemptive song that urges "Don't walk away, in silence." "Atmosphere" also cautions "See the danger, always danger" as if Curtis knew that life was fraught with peril, but it could be overcome. Of course, his own problems were never overcome but Ian Curtis in his own poetic, artful way managed to convey the psychology of immense pressure, depression and disillusion. "Dead Souls" was probably the most aggressive, rock-oriented of their 1980 work featuring some more echoey, tribal drums, power chords and a throaty vocal from Curtis. It had arena rock tendencies but layered with so much dread and peril that it could never be fashioned as a traditional crowd-pleaser. The album being worked on by Joy Division when Curtis died arrived in July. A suitably dour, lucid and ethereal album, Closer (A) was a fitting follow-up and final album. The energetic, punky flavour of the debut was muted by a thicker layer of pessimism as songs now were supplied with more electronic instruments and textures, as evidenced by the dance fury of "Isolation," a nod to Kraftwerk and sign of things to come for the other three sans-Curtis. 

Overall, Closer is no better or worse than Unknown Pleasures, acting as part of an "apples vs. oranges" debate. On Closer, synthesizers were used for rhythmic roles moreso than melodic and this could be very effective. Good examples are the chilling "Decades," the final track here, running over 6 minutes, which was not an alien thing because Closer is only 9 tracks with an average running time of just under five minutes (44:26 in total). The "gloom and doom" is at every turn, this album making Unknown Pleasures sounds like smiles and sunshine by comparison. The opening, "Atrocity Exhibition," is a tour de force of guitar feedback as Curtis sings an oppressive, sadistic set of lyrics that could be a very fitting Halloween tale indeed. It makes one think of the Nazi connotations to Joy Division as Curtis sings "For entertainment they watch his body twitch." He describes a grisly, sadistic urge of some humans and invites with "This is the way, to step inside." Morris once again shows his ingenuity with drum polyrhythms by providing another hypnotic beat on the low toms, once in a while pounding out a short fill on snare for dramatic effect. The dark and sinister sound of Joy Division is in full force for "Passover," "Colony" and "Means to an End." That's just side one though and it's not the best part of the album even if it's an impressive one. Side two is the amazing jolt of originality that truly distinguishes, and in my opinion distinguishes Closer from Unknown Pleasures. Side two is incredibly downbeat even though it starts off up-tempo with the frightening and detached "Heart and Soul." "Heart and Soul" is a masterful musical and production palette of clanging, echoey drums, deep synthesizer sounds simmering below the surface and a seemingly distant, other-worldly vocal from Ian Curtis, who bellows in a wavering key but never without enticing the listener. 

"Twenty Four Hours" is a scintillating piece with another of Peter Hook's superb bass lines and a commanding vocal as if descended from the mountains. It is easily the closest thing to pure post-punk rock because as the final two tracks prove, Joy Division was something else altogether. The already-mentioned "Decades" is preceded by the sombre, melancholy, funeral "The Eternal," a song littered with a snake-like rattling sound effect creeping in and out. As well, Martin Hannett gives the drums a delay effect while piano makes its first appearance for Joy Division, playing an incredibly sad and lingering melody as Curtis contemplatively croons. It's the most easy listening and yet the most unsettling track you're going to hear out of Joy Division because it almost puts Curtis' suicide into perspective. They were all about unsettling and inventive contradictions, after all. Ian Curtis seemingly lived what he was singing about and it all ended tragically. New Order's first single from early 1981 was "Ceremony" b/w "In a Lonely Place"- two songs that were being worked on before Curtis died. Only two recordings of Joy Division performing "Ceremony" in its infancy were even put to acetate, one being of poor quality and not used, the other being a live recording two weeks before Curtis' death that captured an energetic performance marred by microphone problems that omit the first verse of lyrics. Even when the mic is picked up, the vocals are buried and rather distant. It, along with the live set it came from, was the last thing committed to tape of Curtis and became side 2 of Still. After Closer, Joy Division began being recognized even further for their impact and influence. No group had ever created such a painted picture of gloom through turning personal and external anguish and pain into such redeeming, vital music. And no group has done so since. 

The other three eventually decided to soldier on a couple months later, renaming themselves New Order, adding Morris's girlfriend and eventual wife Gillian Gilbert and making a remarkable recovery considering the critical loss of their lead singer. Their immersion into electronica would have seemed ostentatious to anyone in the Joy Division camp in 1978, but that's how things evolve sometimes. While Curtis became a cult icon, New Order eventually lost the gloomy side of their identity while adding electronic features and irresistible pop hooks to their arsenal. They began producing themselves after working with Hannett one last time, learning enough about the studio while jettisoning him because of his strange, drug-induced behaviour that would lead to his death in 1990. For 1981's Movement, New Order sounded more like Joy Division Mark II and they received mixed reviews because of this, with Curtis' deep vocals replicated shallowly by Hook and Sumner. The album was rather anonymous compared to Joy Division with the mix somehow downplaying what could have been a very good album, as the sequencers, synthesizers, tape loops and increasingly tribal-based drums all meld into one faceless, monotonous stew that lacked the refreshing spark of Joy Division. Only "Dreams Never End," "Truth," "Chosen Time" and "Doubts Even Here" rise above the ho-hum for a B-worthy album. This was an indicator that the Joy Division progression would have to be abandoned and their 1981 singles "Procession," "Everything's Gone Green," and 1982's "Temptation" and 1983's "Blue Monday" completed the transition and remodeled the group for good. 

The three players of Joy Division were able to carve out a career as a supremely fascinating techno pop group with innovations made in the field of dance during the 80s while also doing so in sporadic stints in the 90s and this decade... at least before Peter Hook declared his days with the band over in 2006 leaving their future in doubt. Morris's eventual wife Gillian Gilbert bowed out to tend to one of their ill daughters in 2001, replaced by Phil Cunningham as keyboardist. Then Peter Hooked bailed and the remnants re-formed as Bad Lieutenant in 2009. Joy Division seems like another time, another dimension, despite the fact only one member has passed on. A renewed interest in Joy Division makes them as relevant as ever. They have the benefit of nostalgia yes, but also the fact that they were cut short in their prime. And as we know throughout music history, a great creative force being stopped in its tracks makes future admirers all the more passionate, wondering what could have been. Joy Division is crystalized in their peak form, never having to go through a decline or road bumps artistically, much like how the Beatles breaking up makes them as popular as ever while we scoff at the Stones being around, taking them for granted instead of acknowledging their durability and commitment. The way JD ended no doubt affected the band to the point where they made a clear break when re-born as New Order. Until they reunited in the late 90s to record and tour again, Joy Division songs were absent live which would have irked many had New Order not been so spectacular on their own. But overall, New Order made a name for themselves but were always inextricably tied to their days as Joy Division where they made their biggest dent on the musical landscape as the darkest, most mysterious band of the late 70s and a beacon of creativity on the post-punk landscape.