Saturday, 25 April 2015

RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP/ MARC ALMOND (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)


THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 16th April


I loved the music of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop before I knew their name, or even particularly conceived that music had to be made by somebody in order to exist. There is, I would suspect, a whole subset of my generation for whom that statement speaks, and which has led to the boys coming out of retirement for gigs such as this.

Back then, my limited knowledge of music led my young brain to divide it into two distinct types. There was chart music, advert jingles and TV themes, and I didn't differentiate much between them. (And still don't, now I come to think of it.) Then there was the 'space music', unearthly and scarce, primarily to be found on the few science fiction shows of the few channels we had then. Of which, of course, 'Doctor Who' was spaciest of all.

But I wasn't sure how all this would work in the modern world, or in a live setting. It wasn't just that this was music made to go with something. 'Workshop' was the right name for the enterprise, boffins who lucked into a day job which let them make and tinker with equipment, leaving them to their own devices provided they fulfilled their production quotas. They did it, you could imagine, just to see what was out there. An important feature was the wide-ranging nature of their remit, where they were asked to provide sound effects as often as anything resembling music. Their products were more akin to music concrete, electro-acoustic sound collage and tape manipulation, left-field stuff normally associated with formal experimentation inexplicably grafted onto the popular media of radio and television. (Another example, as if we needed one, of how commerce is a dampener not a driver of innovation. Imagine something like that getting past the sponsors and focus groups of today.)

And, once in a concert hall, the workshop does indeed transform into something of a band. Things revert to more conventional instrumentation, incorporating a live drummer who tends to have a standardising - even (if there is such a word) normalising effect. They largely play themes recognisable to their audience, and they play them in a recognisable form. All the strangeness, the unpredictability was smoothed out. This was more musicians making more music. I was reminded of something Mark Fisher wrote after JG Ballard's death, on the base banality of most of his press obits:

“So here they come again — all the familiar profiles, all the old routines. All that over-rehearsed musing about the supposed contrast between Ballard’s writing and his lifestyle and persona. All that central London cognoscenti condescension: he lived in Shepperton, he wore a tie and drank gin and yet he could come up with this — imagine that. As if it isn’t obvious that English suburbs are seething with surrealism. As if you could think for a minute that 'The Drowned World' or 'The Atrocity Exhibition' were written by anyone wearing jeans.”

For too often this gig felt like the pressed flares of the Workshop crammed into straightleg jeans.

Granted, most people are here to rekindle a few youthful memories. But ironically our view of the Workshop is probably a limited one. The workshop was created back in 1958, and was not particularly confined to 'Doctor Who' or even science fiction. Expected to be productive and earn their keep, they worked on many a production we'd not automatically associate with them. (The gig opens with a sound effect of Colonel Bloodnok's stomach from 'The Goon Show'.) It's not that they did a few totemic things, which the rest of the world has now caught up with. That's not even close. There are reservoirs of strangeness here as yet not dived into.

Alas, the opposite seems to have happened. Originally they may well have popularised some out-there music production techniques, inspiring the Beatles, Pink Floyd and others. But their history was effective rewritten in the Nineties, where they came to be seen as a prototype of a kind of dance music – the quasi-mystic New Agey type. And what they are doing now is confining their sound to conform to this conforming stereotype. (The drummer, I later discover, is Kieron Pepper who has played with the Prodigy.) Perhaps that's the fate of everything in our modern soundbite culture. Stars that rise precisely because they're something different can't be kept that way, gravitational fields come to pull on them and their distinct shapes reworked until they fit more easily into the neat constellations of our minds. In the words of that other great BBC institution 'Blue Peter', everything from the past just equates to something we have now, its just one that was made earlier.

Perhaps attending such an event is a little like watching one of those 'I Love the Seventies' chat/clip shows and expecting insight into what made the Seventies so unique. The actuality just gets in the way of the flow of nostalgia. Perhaps we should just make do with when the remaining strangeness still shone through. Generally their reworking of incidental music worked better than their rehashing of TV themes, less readily transformable into tracks. There were highlights, such as 'Electricity, Language and Me' where a spoken poem and music interbred, rather than one being set to the other. And despite my qualms about the drumming, introducing a second drummer seemed to tip things over into defamiliarity.

And what might seem the most predictable, most crowdpleasing moment of all – the 'Doctor Who' theme, inevitably saved for the finale – worked surprisingly well. The Delia Derbyshire version has a crystalline simplicity which belies its strangeness. Its effectively unimprovable, to add anything to it merely takes stuff away from it. (Check out, for example, the version currently being used by the show.) Yet if they just perform the original it's already familiar, and besides quite brief.

At first perform the original is what they do, and fairly faithfully, before launching into what's effective a live remix of their own work, taking up elements and playing with them, before dropping back to the original. And yet it's not the original original they come back to, but the later theme of the Tom Baker era, like the music itself had induced some kind of time travel. In short it stayed faithful to the original, while finding a way to rework it into a live number.

This isn't, I don't think, precisely the remix I saw but follows a similar trajectory. (I'd still prefer it without the drumming, mind.)


MARC ALMOND
Brighton Dome, Tues 21st April


After not being overly impressed by the Tyburn Tree despite his contribution, I was keen to see Marc Almond performing in his own right. He's a classic example of a singer whose personality far outshines technical ability. He has a voice which is simultaneously histrionic and heartfelt, campishly theatrical and yet impassioned. When he sings, to quote Johnny Rotten, he “means it, man”.

Despite coming to everyone's attention via the synthpop era, which might seem one of the more transient moments even in the ephemeral world of pop music, even then it was already obvious he was part of a broader tradition. As a child he’d listen to his parents’ Eartha Kitt records, while since those days he’s recorded an album of Jacques Brel songs. The only other time I saw him, back in the late Eighties in the cabaret environment of the old Zap club, he was perched on a barstool as part of a duo. And tonight he appears on a behind-stage video in crooner garb, while a lyric name-checks Sinatra.

Not uncoincidentally he's described his new record, ‘The Velvet Trail’, as “one journey, one record you put on from beginning to end, linking tracks with musical interludes... I always see my records as a show running from beginning to end that takes you on a ride.” And he audaciously pushes the Eighties hits to crowd singalongs at the end, the better to concentrate on that ride.

Which would be all to the good... Except what little I'd heard of the new album I'd found uninspired so had been secretly hoping for something more oldies-centric. (Not necessarily synthpop, for there's a lot of material between then and now I've never really caught up with.) As it turns out, the album – and by extension the gig – isn’t weak so much as maddeningly uneven. True, the title track does sound a placeholder for grandiosity. But 'Minotaur', the gig opener, is as mighty as its monicker might suggest.

I suspect if I were to catch up properly with Almond’s oeuvre, I’d most take to the Marc and the Mambas era. One of the great things about the Eighties was the continual cross-traffic between the popular and the left-field. And indeed, simultaneously to his clocking up hits with Soft Cell, Almond was getting together with more experimental musicians to combine cabaret songs with sheer sonic strangeness. (He later disbanded the outfit when he feared they were becoming a regular band.) Perhaps unsurprisingly one of my favourite songs from the set, ‘Black Heart’, turns out to stem from that era.

And as for those Eighties hits, they've actually aged well. What then seemed contemporary has by now become evocative. A lyric like “standing in the doorway of the Pink Flamingo/ crying in the rain” brings the whole thing back - the cheesy cocktail bar with the neon palm tree in the window, the night's drizzle smearing itself across it...

'Live My Own Life', not from Brighton but the same tour. Shaky camera but not too bad sound...

Sunday, 19 April 2015

WIRE/ TOMAGA/ MOON DUO (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)


WIRE/ TOMAGA
Prince Albert, Brighton, Sun 12th April


Post-punk stalwarts Wire are, with the exception of new-boy guitarist, now all in their Sixties - yet still show no sign of slowing down or letting up. Less than six months after curating and playing at the Drill festival here they're back - in a crammed-to-capacity room above a pub for the first of two “intimate warm up” gigs. Before a tour which includes two further Drill festivals, one in London andone in Chicago.

After an admittedly faltering start, they hit their stride. Wire are like a precision instrument, two guitars interlocking, tracks building to a head then stopping on a dime. Though at one point second guitarist Matt Simons (the new boy mentioned earlier) coined a new genre, blistering away on noise bottleneck guitar.

The final (pre-encore) number was based around a rumbling, dirgy riff, building in force like a sonic avalanche until you came to fear the world might come to an end. Such stuff does for your self what being put in a boiling cauldron would do for your body, pulps you back down to that originating undifferentiated gloop. As once said by me (well nobody else ever quotes me!) “music comes from the drone, the single held note, the way all the land masses we live on know came from the original super-continent Pangea.”  As such its music particularly suited to the live environment, when you’re semi-subliminally aware its having the same all-is-one effect upon the whole crowd.

Stepping back on stage for the encore they announced they only had seven minutes before the curfew. At which point someone from the audience pointed out that, in the old days, that would have done them for seven numbers. And then, for the first time that night, they served up pretty much that – propulsive bass lines, spiky guitars, starts and stops.

The set's only weakness was a tendency to get indie, which I suppose another way of saying going soft on you. In Alexis Petridis' review of their new album in the Guardian, he commented: “Wire’s sound has always rested on the intriguing tension between, on the one hand, a desire to experiment and conceptualise and, on the other, Newman’s pop sensibility, his urge for simplicity and his enduring love of late-60s British psychedelia, the balance between the two constantly shifting... It’s tempting to say that on [the new album], the latter aspect of the band has the upper hand.” And indeed it has. And for some of us, the tension is the very thing that keeps it live.

Not great nostalgists, Wire have on occasion hired their own tribute band to support them, thereby giving the crowd the classic tracks without having to bother themselves. Tonight, though, we have better luck


Support band Tomaga in their own words “channels various forms of multi-instrumentalism into music that moves by turns through industrial, jazz, psychedelia and minimalism, on it’s way to somewhere wholly other.” A decent description, but one which perhaps skips over their biggest influence. For if their name sounds like a word salad made from the classic Can album 'Tago Mago', that doesn't seem entirely a coincidence.

The duo sit squeezed among so much kit, switches, leads and pedals there scarcely seems space left for the people intended to play them. But soon they're off, hands darting between hittable things, strummable things, switches to switch and keys to hold down in quicker time than it takes to tell. If they don't quite bring in the kitchen sink, a wok is brought into play. (Woks turn out to be surpisingly musical.) They're simultaneously ceaselessly inventive and astonishingly tight.

They slip between trance grooves and spacey impro (with perhaps a little too much of the latter for us trance groove fans). Rather than sound like something retro, krautrock almost works better when plugged into modern music technology in this way. Loops are sampled and then played over, like building up a totem pole of sound before your ears, adding level atop level. Perhaps at heart krautrock was always futuristic, always about the benign synthesis of man and machine.

Couldn't seem to find any recent vidclips of Wire, despite them being on tour, so here's some Tomaga (not from Brighton)...


MOON DUO
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 9th April


Moon Duo's self-described mission statement is to “fuse the futuristic pylon hum and transistor reverb of Suicide or Silver Apples with the heat-haze fuzz of American rock ‘n’ roll to create tracks of blistering, 12-cylinder space rock”.

After Wooden Shjips I've now seen Ripley Johnson in both of his guises, and am mostly reminded of the old Pere Ubu lyric - “buy me a ticket to a sonic reduction”. For paring down and stripping back is clearly his musical watchword. In both bands his vocals are so de-forwarded I found myself trying to recall whether Wooden Shjips were instrumental or not. While here if you were to listen to each instrument separately, on its own channel, you would most likely run through them all concluding each was a backing to something else. The Quietus describe them as a band that “settles on a chord (or two) for each track and runs it into the ground”.

Johnson's guitar is often so laconically simple he's effectively playing bass parts (there being no bassist), even his solos only passing for such in the company they keep. Sanae Yamana's keyboards probably pick up most of the work, though even they're chiefly confined to washes, surges and near-drones. She'll repeatedly slam down on the same keys, like someone trying to give themself RSI.

And John Jeffrey's drums (for Moon Duo recently picked up a live drummer to become a trio), by doing least of all, perhaps sum up best of all how well this reductive business works. A great musician isn't someone who can do a lot but can take a little a long way. Its because they play this simply that they have to play this good. It also throws things into such a focus that relatively small changes, such as a slight slowing-down of the drum pattern, take on a magnified significance. The less there is of what you do, the more that what's left matters.

And their name is well-chosen. (Well that non-counting part of their name anyway.) Like many bands of this stripe, their sound is like being bathed in pure white light. But Moon Duo sound like… well, moonlight, silver-cold and slightly spectral. Hairy West Coast hippies they may be, but the ideal gig for them wouldn’t be on some sun-baked beach, but in some forest clearing with the glowing white orb at its fullest.

It seems Moon Duo where originally the side project, but of late its Wooden Shjips who have waned while they have waxed. (Do you see what I did there?) And I reckon I prefer them of the two. It's like they've set their stall on the right crossroads, the perfect interchange between fuzzy garage and space rock, allowing them to sound rooted and astral at the same time.

More, please, of this less business.

Not much to see in this crowd vid, admittedly, but the sound quality is good enough...

Saturday, 11 April 2015

GEORGE BELLOWS: MODERN AMERICAN LIFE

Royal Academy, London

The latest in a long series of behind-time art exhibition reviews, in both senses of that word. It is, if any recompense, part of a short series on Modernist art and the city


”Here is a slice of New York... It is not pretty... When you paint a crab-apple don't paint us a luscious peach”
- New York Sun review of Bellows, 1909

George Bellows was part of the Ashcan School, a loose association of early Twentieth century American artists, who chose to paint contemporary subjects in an immediate style. Robert Hughes has said of them that they “wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter”. Indeed, his career essentially began with his move to New York City in 1904.

Street-Level Views

The immediacy begins pretty much immediately. For the first room is given over to his ink and charcoal drawings, and its notable how when his oils show up how little they depart from these. Its not just that they display the same roughness and vibrancy, they even retain the limited and quite sombre palettes.

For example, 'Forty-two Kids' (1907, above) is made up of shades of brown and blue-green, the frame divided in diagonal halves between these two dominant colours. The children's flesh is neither healthily tanned nor cleanly white, but somewhat sickly shades of orangey brown. The nudity, the array of both lolling and frolicking figures, these suggest at some bucolic nature scene. But this palette and the broken-up jetty on which they hang out quite deliberately vie with this, and make it clear this is not just an urban but a downtown scene. While the word “kids” in the title might seem innocuous to us, the vernacular term would have told a contemporary audience these were the poor children of newly arrived immigrants. Children swim in the public pool because they have a nickel. Kids made do with this.
At five feet across, 'New York' (1911, up top) is undertaken with a truly American sense of scale. Even today, to those of us who passed through the bustle of central London to get to the gallery, it's strikingly metropolitan. There's a quite rigid dividing line across the middle of the picture, skyscrapers above separated from the teeming figures below. The upper section is almost vertiginous, the sweeping buildings not just ascending but the street receding into the distance. While the lower section is almost claustrophobic, a cacophony of horizontal motion, with not one of the many figures looking up to the sights above them. That should be a street interchange in the middle distance, but instead of a neat switching mechanism its a convulsive jumble. We thereby see uptown and downtown in one cross section, just as horse-pulled carts coexist with buses.
”...a kettle forever on the boil... almost everything is aggressively man-made, a great interlocking of forces at war with each other... it is hard to look at any part of this painting because you see it all at once in all its razzmatazz, splashily impressionistic vigour, a cityscape that presses back at you, the rush and the clamour of it all, the seethe of humanity, that sense of being trapped, pent on a small and relatively narrow island where the only direction the buildings can go is up, and then up.”
This time it's not just an image of Lower East Side residents, top-hatted toffs co-exist with broom-pushing workmen on the street. But it's from the perspective of the poor blocks. The towering buildings seem canyons to the lowly footsore immigrants, as much as Monument Valley did to the pioneers of John Ford films. Though he didn't come from this bottom-rung background, it's probably important that Bellows wasn't a native New Yorker. He had to see those soaring skyscrapers and teeming streets with an outsider's eye, the better to convey them to the rest of us.
And the style and execution is as important as the imagery. The Ashcan School tended to progressive politics (Bellows himself largely moving in anarchist and libertarian-left circles). And in many ways we see the almost journalistic style we most associate with politically committed art – this is like reportage, someone setting down what they see. But the roughness of execution and impassioned thickness of the paint draws attention to its existence as a painting, leading to a creative tension.
It's not a perspective from any real place, it's an assemblage Bellows has put together to convey his point. As with 'Forty-two Kids' there's no intra-picture explanation for the vantage point. We're too high to be on the street among those hurried figures, in fact we feel slightly removed from them. Yet there's no suggestion of a window, or any location which would allow us to look down. In the language of art, that's often shorthand for seeing things from the perspective of the artist.

Though Bellows painted New York in different seasons he perhaps most excelled at winter scenes, to the point where he could have been crowned King of Cold. 'Men of the Docks' (1912, above) powerfully evokes the sense of air that bites - its skyscrapers blurring into the sky by the frozen equivalent of a heat haze, the slash of an icy blue river before them. It somehow looks vivid and muted at the same time, as if the cold has leeched the colour from it. The huddled figures are just distant enough that their features start to emerge but never quite resolve, pitched between ciphered representations of the working man and actual subjects. One steps away from the others to take a slash out in the open.
Why the fixation with weather? Of course, as an island, New York's weather does tend to extremes so Bellows was simply painting what was there. But there's more. Take this quote from Upton Sinclair's 1906 Chicago-set novel 'The Jungle':
”...each season had its trials, as they found. In the spring there were cold rains, that turned the streets into canals and bogs; the mud would be so deep that wagons would sink up to the hubs, so that half a dozen horses could not move them. Then, of course, it was impossible for any one to get to work with dry feet; and this was bad for men that were poorly clad and shod, and still worse for women and children. Later came midsummer, with the stifling heat... a very purgatory; one time, in a single day, three men fell dead from sunstroke... with the sun beating down, and the air motionless, the stench was enough to knock a man over...”
Both share the conceit that so harsh is city life that the very weather becomes exacerbated.


In a rapidly changing city, Bellows often painted scenes of construction, such as 'The Lone Tenement' (1909) or 'Pennsylvania Station Excavation' (1909, above). These tend to evoke the same sense of the industrial sublime as Turner before him, the built environment seen with the same sense of stupefied awe as nature. Unlike Turner there is an element of critique of the industrial in Bellows' work. With it's monumental gothic towers, it's plumes of fire and smoke and its dwarfed figures this scene has been described as “infernal”. And yet if its not fully celebrated its presented as an unstoppable transforming force.
The historian Henry Adams said of this time:“Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder has exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steel against the sky.”(Quoted in Jackson Lears' 'New York Knock Out', Royal Academy magazine 118, alas not currently available on-line.)
Pugilistic Painting


And this mention of power takes us to 'Stag At Sharkeys' (1908), perhaps the most famous of Bellow's work. It can be best understood by comparing it to the earlier and more conventional 'Club Night' (1907, both above). In 'Stag' the figures are more grotesquely distorted in what the show describes as “vigorous and slashing brushwork”, faces anonymised and only partly visible. They look to be morphing together even as they fight against one another. We're placed as if within the audience, semi-silhouetted heads bobbing up before us. The fighters are then lit as though they are the light source, an explosion of action at the centre of the frame. There's pre-echoes of Francis Bacon's morphing, fractious forms.
Boxing was then officially banned in New York, permitted only in private clubs. Like prohibition later, part of the attraction became the illicit, and toffs would thrill to rub shoulders with the common folk. The ruddy face at the right fighter's foot looks noticeably urbane rather than urban. (Doubtless at least some of Bellow's fans would have gained a similar frisson from seeing this work.) Unlike all the previous examples this is an interior. And yet it still seems to stand for the city, the war of each against all, a perpetual struggle with no possible victor.
The cartoonist Art Speigelman coined the tongue-in-cheek expression “two-fisted painters” and, with pun intended, this seems an ideal description of Bellows. There's something insistently masculine in his art, evident in every picture cited already, which is merely brought further to the fore by this bruising image. While nature can be gendered as female, even when its not being 'soft' or nurturing, the rough edges of the city are always made male. But Bellows is not just depicting the man-made, his art looks man-made - not just like it has come from a man but from someone who stridently (if mot necessarily consciously) identifies as male. There's an exulting in roughness, which may make this the perfect subject matter.
The result is an almost archetypically American paradox at the heart of Bellows' art - he is exposing the harshness of New York life for the poor, while simultaneously revelling in the strength of those who can withstand that harshness. Bellows and New York are the boxers, forever caught in that mix of struggle and embrace. As Peter Conrad said, writing in the Guardian:
”...he painted the city as a site where, as his mentor Robert Henri said, 'the battle of human evolution is going on'. The weather does its best to massacre his New Yorkers, tormenting them with frigid winters and suffocating summers; their response to the vital challenge is to show off the mettlesome resilience of the human animal.”
(See also Jackson Leers' use of Roosevelt's reference to “the strenuous life”.) If this is a bold and somewhat daunting new world, it has bold and somewhat daunting people in it.

Nature Tamed And Wild


Given that the sublimity of the natural and of the urban environment aren't just analogous but interdependent, it's not entirely surprising that Bellows also made 'wild nature' paintings - particularly through trips he made to Monegan island off Maine. In 'An Island in the Sea' (1911) the frighteningly stark sea barely separates from the sky, with the island a dominant and menacing block of blackness. Cottage and boats in the lower foreground are as dwarfed as the working men in 'Pennsylvania Station Excavation'. 'Forth & Back' (1913, both above) is almost an action shot, a close-up of the sea striking the shore. Had Sharkey's been like this, he'd have just painted the blow.

Perhaps more surprising to come across are what were dubbed the 'leisure views' – less the ravages of wild nature and more society scenes relocated outdoors. 'Love of Winter' (1914, above) has a title you'd find hard to imagine shifted to 'Men of the Docks'. Though its very similar in composition to 'New York', the skating figures move as consolidated mass. The pure white snow forms a clean background to frame the bright reds and mustard yellows of the smart coats of the foreground figures. Working men stopping to take a leak seem absent. There's something almost Bruegel about the quiet celebration of it all. Winter becomes a social activity, not a chill to your bones.


The Ash Canners typically identified themselves against the Impressionists, who seemed too aestheticised, too European. Yet 'Snow-Capped River' (1911) uses their bright colours, even down to the patented purple-tinged snow. It doesn't just show their influence, it reproduces them at their prettiest. Perhaps significantly, you'd search in vain for a female face among the workingmen of 'Men of the Docks' or the nude urchins of 'Forty-two Kids', while women and girls are foregrounded here. Yet, for all the oddness of their co-existence with Stag At Sharky's' and 'New York' and for all their comparative unoriginality, it should be said these are in themselves strong works. All of which, alas, was to change...
Atrocious Wars
Though opposition to the First World War was virtually a default position among American Leftists, Bellows soon abandoned his former comrades to produce a series of anti-German paintings. The most likely explanation for this would be that he fell for something of a dodgy dossier. The Bryce Report aka the 'Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages', released in 1915, did much to marshall American public opinion for intervention. While the Report should not be seen as mere black propaganda, it seems to have instilled a feedback loop to lucidless frenzy in Bellows' mind. It's not that they're propaganda images hitched to an enlistment drive. You could as well say that Grosz and Heartfield dealt in propaganda images, and lack of nuance didn't stop them being two of the greatest artists of this era. It's not that they take a xenophobic and pro-war position. However disappointing that might be it wouldn't necessarily mar their aesthetic quality. Its simpler. Bellows' war atrocity pictures... frankly, they're atrocious.

For example, 'The Barricade' (1918, above) takes the allegation the German army used Belgian human shields and goes from there to depict the civilians as naked. The preposterous and histrionic image falls into a kind of uncanny valley - not realistic enough to be real, too cliched to be symbolic. The outstretched poses of the nudes might suggest Bellows is groping towards some kind of Classicism, echoed by the foliage in the background. Perhaps he thought appropriating such tropes might grant his pro-war message authority. If so, it didn't work very well.
Washed Up In Woodstock
Wikipedia gives the Ashcan school a short lifespan, dating it's end to the arrival of Modernism on America shores with the 1913 Armoury show exhibition. (“Their rebellion was over not long after it had begun. It was the fate of the Ashcan realists to be seen by many art lovers as too radical in 1910 and, by many more, as old-fashioned by 1920.”) Which may seem unduly neat, but stings of the truth. Bellows compounds this by choosing 1920 to move to smalltown Woodstock. And you can't help feeling this resolves an age-old question – when you take the boy out of New York, you do take New York out of the boy. As with Duncan Grant repairing to Charleston, rural relocation blew out the spark.

In this period he continually produces works reminiscent of earlier achievements, which are just inferior echoes – as if he'd become his own copyist. For example, 'Dempsey And Firpo' (1924, above) is another boxing picture. Theoretically it should look more dynamic than 'Stag at Sharky's' - one figure is knocking the other clean out the ring, straight at us. But it feels the opposite. The figures are stiffer, less plasticated and expressive, the victorious puncher sports a strangely dispassionate expression, the front of the crowd reacting more as you would to a summer shower than a hundred and eighty pounds of flesh descending upon you. Above all, the theme of two figures locked in ceaseless battle is lost. It's not a bad work as such, just a more conventional one. You're unsurprised to read in the indicia that by this time boxing had become legalised, and hence a society event. (The earlier lithograph 'Demspey Through the Ropes', 1923, is more effective.)

'The Picnic' (1924) has that slightly lurid quality of painting pressed into service as illustrational art. The skipping girl at the rather refined-looking picnic looks like something from the twee world of 'Alice in Wonderland'. While the hills in the background look ominous less from the edging darkness but from weather which seems unable to make its mind up.
Peter Conrad comments: “The later works in the show are dire: portraits of rich crones, fluffy socialites and their obnoxious lapdogs, plus some magic-realist landscapes that are too fancifully magical to be realistic. When Bellows died in 1925, aged only 42, Edmund Wilson praised his appetite for ugliness; but by then he had acquired a taste for beauty.”
Harsh, Peter Conrad, but fair. Yet if Bellows' truly productive career was brief and chiefly confined to the New York streets, when he was hitting he hit with an impact. He was the right artist for the right time, the right place. His works from the Nineteen Hundred and Tens still strike us, a century or more later.

Coming soon! Most likely something else before the second of these...

Saturday, 4 April 2015

WE HAVE AN ANCHOR/ SPECTRUM OF SOUND 2 (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

WE HAVE AN ANCHOR
Barbican Hall, London, Tues 31st March


This live soundtrack with a difference was part of 'Compass and Magnet', a retrospective on the independent American filmmaker Jem Cohen, best known (and in my case at least, mostly known) for the well-received 'Instrument' documentary on the hardcore punk band Fugazi. And where to go from hardcore punk but a verite-style documentary on Cape Breton, a peninsula so thinly attached to Nova Scotia as to normally be thought of as an island? The musical accompaniment was provided by Gui Picciotto from Fugazi, Jim White from the Dirty Three no less than three members of Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchesra - and more!

The music mostly resembled Mount Zion's parent band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ambient string openings tugged by expansive guitar riffs into more anthemic sections. Yet Godspeed tracks tend to be whole pieces, however much they may morph along the way. Here they'd often play minatures, more akin to your actual film composition. And the ambient element was much stronger, often playing along to the incidental sounds of the film clip. (Cohen commented in the programme “I wanted them to make weather out of sound”.) They sit in just about enough light to find their instruments, chiefly with their backs to us the better to see the film themselves.

And the film itself... Mostly the material is just presented, with no maps or scene-setting, interviewees un-named. The lens seems unselective - we see the rugged wildness of the province, but also the fast food signs. A verbal, largely anecdotal description of Cape Breton's recent history appears briefly, and some way into the film. But in one rare moment of on-screen contextualisation, an already-dilapidated backwoods shack is shown in successive years, succumbing more and more to nature. There's still places left where the wilderness stays in charge.

Some images are held shots, perfectly framed, almost sublime in nature. (Check out the one above.) While others are incidental and almost ephemeral – roadsides, litter rolling around parking lots, a spider climbing a blind – often shot in grainy super 8. The screen often splits into multiple frames, sometimes merely giving us different views of the same thing. In the self-same programme Cohen states “I often build work from a loose archive, gathering without ever knowing it there is a project at hand or what shape it might someday take”. Seeing such ephemeral images in so large an audience, set to music and thrown up on a large screen, cannot help but transform them. In the same day's Guardian Cohen was interviewed and described his style as 'essay film', citing Chris Marker as an influence. But this is more of a tone poem. In fact, three of what could be described as 'your actual poems' are quoted.


Tourist trips can start to follow the structure of adventure games, getting through the task list of finding and snapping each of the photo-ops listed in your guidebook, before moving onto the next. Get through them all before your holiday expires and you're the winner. But its in passing through a place that it rubs off on you, sinking into your pores without your noticing. Yet at the same time, at one point an interviewee says “most things here aren't apparent to outsiders”, and a great strength of the film is that it doesn't pretend otherwise. Instead we have to stay content with the outsider's view. Cohen comments in the programme how little of the native folk music makes it into the soundtrack, just enough to give us a flavour of it. We see just enough of a snaphot of the place to know there's a whole lot we're not seeing. Its like meeting not just a stranger, but someone whose whole way of life is unaligned to yours.

Cohen mentions the cultural, and even geographic, similarities between Cape Breton and the wilder parts of Scotland. And indeed the film reminded me in many ways of my recent trip to Mull. And very much of what you notice is what's been taken out. We're so used to our sight being compressed by walls, to feeling the presence of other people around us, that all we notice is the sudden space. Sometimes you travel less for what you might find than what you can leave behind. And big open spaces seem perfect for this, expanses of snow like unwritten white pages. The title, from the hymn 'Will Your Anchor Hold' ironically emphasises the sense that the film is in a state of perpetual drift. The 'rolling road' shot somehow always feels compelling, even when its become so ubiquitous as to show up in bogstandard Hollywood flicks. Here it comes into its own.

This feeling is evoked verbally by one of the poems Cohen incorporates, 'Cape Breton' by Elizabeth Bishop:

“The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
Unless the road is holding it back,
In the interior, 
where we cannot see...
And these regions now have little to say for themselves”
(You can read the whole thing here.)
It also reminded me of a quote from the cartoonist Kevin Huzunga:
“The work becomes meaningful insofar as its form allows people to invest it with meaning, like a sign in a field that says 'space available'.”
And perhaps the event works so well because concerts are in themselves a smaller way of clearing a space, of upping anchor and of placing everyday life on hold. Perhaps Cohen needed the strange taste of a real place just to show us what a film or concert can do.
For much of the running time, this is nothing less than enthralling. I did feel at times it might be a little over-long, though ninety minutes is only the average gig length. On reflection this may be more a problem with the vox-pops, which can be jarring in two ways. First, they seem to require a different part of the brain to process. (A little like the mental gear-switching required for Laurie Anderson's recent performance in this venue, but perhaps even more so.) But also the interviews with the locals seemed part of a more conventional film and vied with the spirit of the travelogue.
Alas this is the only event in the programme I'm likely to make, though I'm most likely greatly missing out. Cohen has even made a concert film of those great Lucid Frenzy favourites The Ex.
SPECTRUM OF SOUND 2
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Sat 28th March


After getting all excited over the first part of the London Sinfonietta's Spectral music programme, I'm back for the second instalment - with a fresh analogy.

It is true that, with least three of the four pieces perfomed, sounds were sometimes used that might seem at the margins of music – the scraping of bows, the ambient blowing of wind instruments without forming notes, and so on. But overall, any metaphors along the lines of 'edge' or 'margin' point the wrong way for any understanding. The right term for spectral music... well, actually it's spectrum – in the sense of full spectrum dominance.

Standard notation music can be like climbing a climbing wall. After a while your hands know to go to the regularly placed handholds. At which point you might expect me to compare spectral music to a mountain, but really I don't think it resembles the impregnable face of anything. Its more like plunging into the sea. Music engulfs and cascades over you, no longer reducible back to individual notes or instruments. Tom Service has described Ligeti's compositions as “a 'micro-polyphony' of incredibly dense pile-ups of musical lines so that you're more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices”. But the description could apply throughout.

If Georg Friedrich Haas again came away with the gold, I've gushed on about him so much lately I'll try not to do it all over again. Performed in this company, 'Ich Suchte, Aber Ich Fand Ihn Night' (in another UK premiere) threw into sharper relief how much Haas can combine cutting-edge modern with a hearkening back to Romanticism. The title, roughly translatable as 'I Searched, But I Found Him Not', even comes from 'The Song of Solomon' - the only book of the Bible devoted to romantic love.

Except, however much Romanticism broke contemporary bounds in its mission to evoke mood, it kept to music's dramatic structure in a way Haas simply doesn't. Bjorn Gottstein, writing in the programme, comments how he builds “up a tension from moment to moment which then fades away to nothing... musical processes are resolved not redeemed”. As he points out, the searching woman of 'Song of Solomon' is eventually reunited with her lover. Whereas Haas offers no such closure, just the searching.



In his introductory talk, Professor Jonathan Cross mentioned that the Spectralists could consider themselves in opposition to the contemproaries the Minimalists as much as their predecessors the Serialists – and went on to play compare and contrast between them. No small part of this may have been down to transatlantic rivalries, Minimalism was an American phenomenon while Spectralism largely haunted Europe. And perhaps, as an avowed fan of Minimalism, I'm more primed to notice the similarities. Buts Hass's wave after wave of undulating, mesmerising sound pass over you, they give Spectralism a sense of always being 'in the moment' which would seem a main point of comparison.

Giacinto Scelsi's Kya' proved a rare exception to Service's rule of no individual player dominating. A solo clarinet is set against seven other instruments, the cello and brass players often providing little more than drones, a horizon line above which the clarinet flutters and rolls. The trumpet sometimes catches it in a dance.

Scelsi was perhaps the most spectral of the Spectralists, in the sense of spirit-like or other worldly. If the Spectralists do in some way parallel the Minimalists, then Scelsi may be their Terry Riley. His music often feels pitched at the edge of both hearing and audability, (just listen to some of those pitches the clarinet reaches) as if it has the ability to pass between realms and is seeking to draw you across the threshold. At times he'd create compositions from single notes, honing in on them and finding the microtones locked within.

Gyorgy Ligeti may the the most known Spectralist, thanks to the use of his music in Stanley Kubrick films. (Though apparantly strictly he's a 'proto-Spectralist'.) His piece was simply called 'Chamber Concerto', the standard nomenclature a case of hiding under sheeps' clothing if ever there was. It perhaps packed in more musical ideas than most composers manage in a career. String players would pluck at their instruments, strum them like banjos before coming back to something more recognisably harmonic, then flying off again.

It's main strength almost became a weakness, there was just so much compressed into it that not all the sections had time to shine and it became hard to assimiliate – like watching a film on fast-forward. It was simultaneously exilerating and befuddling.

Like Claude Vivier before, Tristran Murail was the wild card of the night. (Though in his case I'd heard at least a little by him.) And like Vivier, I greatly enjoyed his piece. But I seem to have used up my repositiory of superlatives for now, so that might have to wait for another time.
Not from the South Bank, the first movement of Scelsi's 'Kya'...

Saturday, 21 March 2015

“WHEN YOU FALL INTO A TRANCE”: VAN MORRISON'S 'ASTRAL WEEKS'


Another in my (highly) irregular series on my top 50 albums

”I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
- Sebastian from 'Brideshead Revisited'

”With a childlike vision leaping into view...”

Journey with me now back to 1968. And there's two big ideas in popular music. Post 'Sergeant Pepper', music has started to grow - becoming bigger, more grandiose, more important. The length of time an album took to record, the sum total of equipment the band possessed, such things were becoming vital forms of currency. Also, reflecting the tumultuous events of its time, the growing social and political upheavals, its becoming more politically charged. Why not succumb to that music journo cliché where everything is supposedly summed up by a song title? There was, to quote Thunderclap Newman, 'Something In the Air'. Okay, that wasn't actually released until the following year. The point still stands. In 1968 even the Beatles, the very epitome of love-in hippies, had started singing about revolution.

Though Van Morrison had already released one solo album (which he later claimed had come out against his wishes), he was then chiefly known for the urgent R+B hits he'd clocked up with Them. A band who had influenced much of the then-current wave of music. The Doors' Jim Morrison, for example, had all but studied his namesake. So of course, ever the contrarian, Van took all this as his cue to completely ignore everything set out above and release a languid folk album - flutes in place of electric guitars and harmoniums replacing mellotrons. 'Sergeant Pepper' has taken a record-breaking six months to record. 'Astral Weeks' was laid down in three short sessions. And they didn't bother using anything from the middle one.

Perhaps only Bob Dylan rivalled the reckless perversity in bucking trends, when in the previous December he'd released the country album 'John Wesley Harding'. But there's a crucial distinction. As recounted previously, Dylan took refuge from the antagonisms of his previous patented “me/you” songwriting by escaping into a collectivised American folklore. It was an album borne of his desire to not look or sound like Bob Dylan any more, or even particularly answer to his own name. Whereas Morrison's reminiscences of his Belfast youth were simultaneously highly personal and absolutely universal.

While notable exceptions apply, the new 'progressive' music was for the main part simply standard rock fare with knobs on. With the inevitable result that most of the knobs fell off as soon as they were tried. 'Astral Weeks' was and remains beyond all that.

Compare it to visual art for a moment. If Faust were an artwork they'd be a Dadaist collage, Wire a Bauhaus diagram. 'Astral Weeks' would be a piece of folk or naïve art. And like much naïve art the album has an apparent freshness and simplicity. Only once inside do you realise how easily you can get lost in there.

Listen closely to any track you choose and beneath the languid surface you find something incredibly rich and sophisticated. What almost invariably starts off as a simple little folk ditty soon spawns a multiplicity of instruments. Instruments which don't just play along with one another but take off in entirely unexpected directions, while somehow retaining their harmoniousness when they should by any odds collapse into chaos. (The overlay picture on the cover is perhaps a perfect visual representation of the music.) Morrison has described the album as “just folk music incorporating jazz” and much of this effect seems to have been achieved merely by enlisting jazz musicians to play folk. It results in a double-plus trade-off where the folk stops the jazzing getting too noodly, while the jazz makes the folk richer than just straightforward.

Yet the surface is as important as the substance, the jazz needs the folk as much as the other way around. Its vital that it all feels so immediate, so organic and spontaneous. While you listen you can't imagine it being composed, arranged or produced, you can't separate it back out into its constituent parts of lyrics and instrumentation. It feels like the music somehow just appeared the way we hear it now, simply leapt into view, was cut from whole cloth.

Which I long assumed to be a smart illusion. Like Dolly Parton claiming “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, I was smart enough to know it must have taken considerable time and effort to achieve that spontaneous sound. As it happens, it seems they achieved it through... well, spontaneity. Though he'd taken a year to write all the songs (during an impasse where he lacked a record contract), Morrison hadn't met many of the musicians before recording began. And when they all showed up, he simply told them to play what they wanted then vanished off into the singer booth. So casual were the arrangements that to this day the flautist on many of the tracks is unknown.

The album I most associate with 'Astral Weeks' in its effect, in the way it works on you is one it has absolutely nothing in common with otherwise, stylistically or thematically – Patti Smith's 'Horses'. Both induce a fugue state. Its not a matter of what the singer is singing, the guitar is strumming or the drummer is drumming. It's all of those things at once, ganging up on your attention, overwhelming you until your senses can only surrender and be swept along. Compare the hypnotic repetition of simple phrases, “way up on, way up on” from 'Madame George' to “go up, go up, go-up go-up” on 'Birdland'. But while 'Horses' is vibrant and convulsive, seizing at your ears, 'Astral Weeks' is beguiling. It lulls you into its world.

People are wont to argue that good song lyrics are akin to poetry, and so measure them by how well they stand on their own terms. Whereas Morrison's impressionistic flow of lyrics could never be prised apart from the music they go with. Which is why they go with the music. Its like asking if the front wall of my house would stay up if you took the other walls away. I've no interest in finding out, I like my house the way it is.

Certainly, the lyrics can be given to poetic flights. Things open, after all, with the couplet “If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dream”. But its the simpler phrases which linger the longest. Take the classic line from 'Sweet Thing', “I will drink the clear, clean water for to quench my thirst”. At numerous points things slip into a childlike perspective, the innocent anthropomorphism of windows rapping or music dancing.

And Morrison is as happy with the mundane (“Kids outside collecting bottle tops/ Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops”). With memories, the minutiae of the detail – the shape of the room, the wallpaper, the time of day – are just a tag for the real substance, a thread leading you to the way the whole thing felt. This is what Waugh (via Sebastian) means in the quote up top, in his comparison of memories to treasure maps.

Which tends to the untranslatable. The surface details of my youth, which would trigger such resonances for me, would seem without significance for you. The tag would be unattached to the thread. But put together with the vocal delivery and the music, they become like biting into that Proustian cake. It's like a spell falling on you, like accessing memories you never had.

The result is an album fit to induce synaesthesia. Basslines snake along long numbers, curving like country lanes. The shimmer of strings on the title track calls up the sparkle of the summer sea, the jaunty swoops of the flute like brightly coloured bobbing sailboats, the harmonium on 'Cyprus Avenue' evokes the golden glow of late afternoon.

”Another Time, Another Place...”

'Rolling Stone' have commented of 'Astral Weeks': “it was instantly recognized as one of the rare albums for which the word timeless is not only appropriate but inescapable”. And indeed it's timeless in both senses of the word. In the already-mentioned sense of not being tied to its era, but instead following more universal themes. But also in the sense of taking time as being ours to play with.

To get to the heart of 'Astral Weeks', you need to compare it to an earlier Dylan track - 'Bob Dylan's Dream'. Dylan sings plaintively of the room he spent so much youthful time in, knowing that he'll never be able to step back inside it. Whereas 'Astral Weeks' is 'Bob Dylan's Dream' inside out. Hartley called the past another country. But that's no reason not to move there. Morrison contends that you can go home again, and that music can be the spell that takes you.

Here's a bluffer's tip. When talking about 'Astral Weeks', mention the German word heimat, which fuses together 'home', 'source' and 'belonging'. Its the idea that we are formed by primary relationships, with people and with places.'Astral Weeks' portrays Belfast as heimat.

And the fact that the title track is in many ways a gospel number, mentioning “I got a home on high... way up in the heaven”, merely compounds this. What heimat and heaven have in common is that they're source places, they're where we were made the way we are. (Though the phrase “to be born again” might not have had the same associations when written. Stemming from the Bible, it would probably still have been seen as a religious phrase. But it's association with right-wing evangelism mostly dates from Chuck Colson's 1976 book of the same name.)


People are wont to to tell you 'Astral Weeks' is Blakean. Me, I find the notion fanciful. They're as wont to see it as Edenic, and there I think they're on the money. 'Sweet Thing' is, after all, about nothing other than two lovers in an idyllic garden. There's the repeated references to being beyond thought. Perhaps the epitome of the mood is the way Morrison sings the line “to dig it all and not to wonder”. In the (in many ways splendid) cover by the Waterboys, Mike Scott sings the line hopefully - as though that's the life he wants to be living. Whereas Morrison sings the line as if that's what he's doing right now. (And I say that as a huge Waterboys fan.)

Brian Hogg makes a vital point - “the strength of 'Astral Weeks' is not held in individual tracks, instead it comes from its cumulative air of passion and mystery.” ('Strange Things Are Happening' 4, 1988) Which is correct, but relies on a different definition of 'cumulative' than 'beginning to end'.

Popular music comes from popular culture, and frequently you have to think yourself back into its era before you can fully appreciate it. Yet as 'Astral Weeks' breaks all those rules perhaps its not surprising that the ideal way to hear the album didn't come about until years after it was released – on rotation. It's a song cycle which doesn't run through but loops endlessly, from the dying ex-lover on 'Silm Slow Slider' to the refrain “to be born again” on the title track. And you inevitably find you can quite happily listen to it repeatedly. In the words of the song, you'll always be “caught one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue”.

And, as if to prove that point, let's look at individual tracks by starting off with the closing number...

”Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world”

Some albums come with their own get-out clause, making one track the antidote to everything else, such as 'Malibu' from Hole's 'Celebrity Skin'. 'Astral Weeks' conversely is an album built as an an antidote to one track, which then gives that track the last word by making it the album's closer. With its mournful sax refrain, seemingly floating above and beyond the rest of the number, 'Slim Slow Slider' is as hauntingly empty as the rest of the album is rich and golden. Notably it's the only track to name a place outside of Belfast – Ladbroke Grove in London, the big city. (Though Morrison was resident in America when the album was made. And perhaps he even needed that distance from it all.)

Equally notably, its the shortest track on the album. (Unless you count 'Like Young Lovers Do'. Which we don't.) Compared to what has come before, its almost abrupt. “You're out of reach” is the chilling counter to the eloquent flow of lines like “the love that loves to love”. (And note how 'Madame George' featured “throwing pennies”, whereas here its “catching pebbles for some sandy beach”.) It's like grits in the bottom of the glass.

And yet of course its Morrison seeing his old flame in the street (“with your brand new boy and your Cadillac”) that starts the song cycle, that unleashes the flow of memories that make up the album. Which is where the album starts...

The shimmering flux of the title track is one of those songs which acts like a spell upon you, kissing our eyes back into seeing, taking us back to “another time, another place” like the visual conceit of films going wibbly to signify flashback mode. Having quoted 'Brideshead Revisited' once already, this is how an older, more weary-wise Charles reacts to suddenly re-hearing it's name:

“On the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless... for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”

Typically, the line “nothing but a stranger in this world” doesn't really register until you've heard the cycle through, and realise Morrison is opposing the contemporary world of Ladbroke Grove with his youthful memories of Belfast, that “this world” he's so outside is our world.

After all this metaphysical flying through time we find ourselves in a child's bedroom. But not for long, because “Little Jimmy's gone/ Way out of the backstreet/ Out of the window/ Through the fallin' rain...”

That unused session mentioned earlier was the only one which didn't take place in the late afternoon. And the whole album has that unhurried pace, as if the bustle of the day was all behind you. But only 'Beside You' is set in that twilight time. It's an account of a child starting to explore the world around him, discovering the streets that surround his home as a way of finding out about himself. New instruments continue to strike up, like further features of this new world appearing. Such vivid descriptions of Little Jimmy's explorations (slipping from “he” to “you” as the song goes on) may initially seem at a remove from the title-supplying chorus, which is more a simple love song that a protective parent may sing to a child. In one the child is tucked up safely at night, in the other he's absent without official leave. But it's through that juxtaposition that the song draws its meaning.

It's the benevolent paradox of childhood, as summed up in the joining line “you turn around and I'm beside you”. You can slip your parent's hand and run off, secure in the knowledge that at some point your parent will come along and find you. You know they have the same limited physical existence as you, that pushing open the window and sneaking out works when they're not there to see and stop you. But still your young mind ascribes to them some vague sense of omnipotence. They won't so much look for you as know. I'm of the generation where religion was a fixed part of the school curriculum. And, while children are of course credulous by nature, its worth noting how easily it is to conceive the concept of God at that age. A limitless, all-pervasive loving force – something like your parents, only even more so.

From thereon in it's possible to make out a fuzzy narrative, a life story built around a love affair. As little Jimmy grows we first encounter hopeless adolescent infatuation outside the school gates ('Cyprus Avenue'), rising to a meeting of souls and bodies ('Ballerina'), then the inevitable break-up and dissolution ('Slim Slow Slider'). There's no shortage of lines which support this narrative, such as the girl being specified as fourteen on 'Cyprus Avenue' then as twenty-two on the later 'Ballerina'.)

Except the more you try to pin things to it, the less they adhere. 'Sweet Thing', for example, strikes up out of order, before the girl down Cyprus Avenue has even been glimpsed. But there's worse...

This narrative structure is mostly likely a detour I've built in my mind to skirt the obvious. In it the singer of 'Cyprus Avenue' is a schoolboy to go with the schoolgirl he's so smitten by. Which he most probably isn't. “My tongue gets tied” might suggest adolescent awkwardness, young mouths fumbling to express strange new feelings. But what of the line “conquered in a car seat”? Doesn't it suggests an ironic juxtaposition between the active, adult role of being behind the wheel and the regression back into a blushing boy? Besides, would one schoolchild strike another as “so young and bold”? In which case what we actually have is a song about an older guy parking up so he can gawp at a schoolgirl. Lester Bangs was probably right all along to say Morrison had a tendency to sing about paedophilia.

But, were we to somehow set this no-small-matter aside, the lack of coherence in itself doesn't matter much. While the album is playing, while it's all happening, the music and lyrics seem in such a state of harmony that surely it must all make sense. It's just when you try to make sense of it, it all seems to dissolve. It's like chasing the end of a rainbow, it so clearly seemed to be somewhere until you went there. But then sense was never the object. Morrison always insisted that he wrote the songs in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, had not the slightest clue what any of it might be about and has no interest in speculating on the subject.

However Lester Bangs, in his celebrated review, essentially stated that he has no idea about any of it either but doesn't see why that should stop him. Which is pretty much the approach I'm taking. When the love-story narrative works, go with it. As soon as it doesn't, let your mind focus on something else.

Take the sequencing, for example. It works better experienced as a geography than a narrative, the title track like crossing the crest of a hill to see what's laid out beyond, next a downward swoop into the serene valleys of 'Cyprus Avenue' and 'Madame George', then climbing the next peak with 'Ballerina'.

But, were we to insist on forcing the pieces into a fixed narrative, perhaps the worst aspect would be that it excludes the album's best track and incorporates its worst. Thematically, 'Like Young Lovers Do' is a companion love song to 'Ballerina'. Yet it's urbane and polished while the rest of the album is free-form and impressionistic. Compare the crooner scatting of the vocals as it closes to the ululating glossolalia of 'Madame George's “love that loves to love”. The track is such a sore thumb stuck on an elegant hand that you can only assume it was intended as a single. (Though no single was ever released.)

And speaking of 'Madame George'...

”And you know you've got to go...”

Ultimately, we need to be less concerned with what slots into the narrative than what fits the picture. The love story, like a love story in a movie, is a framing device. A way to convey what's really going on in a form most of us will recognise. So when the album's key and stand-out track, 'Madame George,' ignores it completely... well, so should we.

Mid-way through another idyllic reflection comes the phrase “and you know you gotta go”. Already the longest track on the album, just as it seems to be over it strikes back up for an extended closing refrain, built around the repeated phrase “say goodbye”. It hangs around as if the song itself doesn't want to leave, drawing out the moment as long as it can. If 'Madame George' is the key song on the album, this coda is quite possibly the key moment of the key song.

The cartoonist Dylan Horrocks once described nostalgia as “remembering the past without the passing of time... You're just remembering what the place was like and the particular atmosphere and so on”. ('The Comics Journal' 243, May 2002) By a kind of rose-tinted wallowing in the past, we evoke place over time. Tableaus triumph over narratives. Birthdays become special days, made up of cakes and presents, unconnected with our getting older. (I find myself I can remember whole chunks of childhood birthdays, but never what particular age I was.) Time has to be suspended for its time which is the undoing of all of this.

I think 'Astral Weeks', however tied up it is with recalling your youth, is doing something else - something more than what can easily become a old-chocolate-wrapper sense of nostalgia. And this coda is where that becomes clearest.

Earlier I compared the album to 'Bob Dylan's Dream', a comparison most notable with 'Madame George'. Significantly, both share the conceit of the past being represented by a room. ('Madame George' is perhaps the only interior-set song on the album.) And of course the past is territorialised for us, tied to memories of spaces we no longer inhabit. But more than that, enclosing the past makes it hermetic. For Dylan its a space he can peer back into, but behind a door that's forever locked. It's notable he dreams of the room – a static space - “while ridin' on a train going west” and comments of his time there “we never thought we could ever get old”. Whereas Morrison starts the song inside the room, then announces he has to leave. And that leaving is the heart of it all. We have our memories and we can indulge them, but embedded in them is the end-date, the knowledge that the situation ends.

'Madame George' is, in about every sense of the word, idyllic but that doesn’t make it utopian. It's on an album which can radiate with sunshine but is as likely to pour down “rain, hail, sleet and snow”. It’s not the soundtrack to a cheery singsong past. It’s an account of life being lived to its fullest, for both good and ill. As Lester Bangs says its “transfixed between pure rapture and anguish. Wondering if they may not be the same thing”. (Disclaimer: Ultimately, I’m not sure that I hear this album the same way as Bangs. It often feels like he heard the album he needed to hear at that time, rather than the one Morrison actually recorded. But that quote at least seems to me to be almost perfect.)

And, though at it's strongest on 'Madame George', this duality of memory is to be found elsewhere on the album. Take 'Ballerina', where Morrison sings “when you came up to me/ Child, you were heading for a fall”. And of course the Fall isn't a twist ending or an interruption to the Edenic myth, it's a core component of it. Some have suggested the woman's impending death on 'Slim Slow Slider' is as a result of drugs. But not only is that interpretation unsupported by the anything in the lyrics, we're not dealing with something that needs pinning to drugs, disease or any thing in particular. The line is “I know you're dying baby, and I know you know it too.” Its the knowledge of death which is significant, the sour-apple taste of knowledge, the opposite of all the not-wondering that went on earlier. Things have shifted from the innocence of the garden to awareness – exile in the outside world.

But for all that, the concept of a song cycle remains essential. When we think back to, for example, Morrison proclaiming “I shall never, never grow so old again”, we know full well that he does. He does it on the very same album. Time will pass. But its not that we're supposed to retrospectively fault this statement, to find it false or naïve. Its a true expression of a true feeling. It means that within the rapture of youth there can be no real sense of death, even if the concept can exist in the abstract.

Ultimately, its not just the songs but the conception of time which becomes cyclic. Rather than progressing through stages of our lives like baton-passers, the adult arising to replace the child, we grown in some way more akin to tree rings. The youthful state is kept alive inside of us, everything that happens being absorbed into our being. And this is captured in the afore-mentioned fugue state conveyed by the music, the sense of it happening all at once.

And it worked. Being out of time created something timeless. One of the (possibly apocryphal) stories about 'Astral Weeks' is that it sold poorly on release, but then carried on steadily selling the same number of copies with each successive year. It is true that when it achieved gold record status, it had taken thirty-three years to do it. It regularly appears on best-of album lists, including of course this one. It's an album you could never tire of, or feel you'd fully got to know. You'll always be caught one more time, down on Cyprus Avenue.