Moondance trumps Astral Weeks. If the rockists choose Astral Weeks as Van’s best then the poptimists will then choose Moondance. It is not merely a more ‘accessible’ or ‘palatable’ record, but also matches (or possibly outdoes) what seem to Astral Weeks’ main draws and objects of acclaim: the emotional, streamy-dreamy spirituality and sense of place. But because the Moondance’s songs are framed within an approachable jazz-soul context (as opposed to Astral Weeks’ more obviously suitable ethereal folk), its passion, depth and emotional profundity are not commented on as much and are lost on many.
Van’s greatest skill is his impressionist evocation of a time, place or reminiscence. This manifests itself in many of his greatest songs, where he captures the time and essence of an experience from childhood. His first great attempt at this was Cyprus Avenue: a slow mesmeric, repetitive arrangement bathed in his stream-of-consciousness lyrics in which he allows the past to merge with the present in a calm exorcism of profound memories. Moondance’s equivalent was And it Stoned Me. He describes the song in an interview:
”I suppose I was about twelve years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension’. That’s what the song is about.”
This is all very mystical and Proustian. And so is Cyprus Avenue. But where And it Stoned Me wins is, through the aforementioned tangibility and accessibility of his arrangement (it has a certain bounce to it), he makes that ‘quasi-mystical’ experience even more relatable; it has both the immediacy of a great pop song and the lasting meaning and power of, well, Astral Weeks. And I do relate to it deeply.
So: to the learned poptimist, Moondance is the golden mean – the moment Van realized that he could be both commercially successful, further his artistry and retain without restraint his emotions and passions at the same time in perfect tandem. For this, it is not only Van’s greatest but one of the greatest albums ever constructed. And in this piece I have only written about one of the things that makes it great.
Here is Caravan, featuring the best use of vocal multi-tracking ever committed to tape at the end.