“Sweet Thing”, by Van Morrison, is like a portal. By opening with a lyric that reads like the middle of a thought (“and I will stroll the merry way”), the song’s narrator brings you directly into his environment. In this case, that’s a rain-soaked, consummate and pastoral garden—it’s not so perfect as to resemble heaven, but also feels timeless and special in a way that isn’t of the earth.
Morrison had a knack for lyricizing these Eden-like places. His most famous album, Astral Weeks—which includes “Sweet Thing” on its eight-song tracklist—is a delicate and vividly poignant transportation to “another time,” “in another place.” Packed with yearning, stroked with desire, coated in longing, the album is Morrison’s finest work: an extraordinary, peculiar and dualistic listen.
As discussed in Ryan H Walsh’s 2018 book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, many of the songs came to Morrison through dream. He also believed in automatic writing, where you pull words from a subconscious, spiritual or supernatural source. That process may be hard to prove, but there is an undeniable and divine spirit breathing its way through Astral Weeks—whether that’s Morrison himself, or something even greater that he channels; a kind of poetic magic.
Personally, I think it’s a bit of both. Though Morrison physically wrote Astral Weeks, each song has bloomed into an entity that seems to hum with its own sensations and emotions. Through the right combination of words and chords, Morrison brings this entity into the physical world. But the spirit of a song isn’t always the final, evolved version. Sometimes a song can be bettered, which is what happened when The Waterboys covered “Sweet Thing” (listen below) for their 1988 album Fisherman's Blues.
Like Dinosaur Jr. and “Just Like Heaven” (The Cure) or Prince and “A Case Of You” (Joni Mitchell), The Waterboys convey the intended emotion of the song, and build on it too, without straying too far from the original à la BBC Radio One’s Live Lounge (or whatever radio show is in your country where indie bands still prosaically piss out anaemic covers of rap tunes or vice versa).
Where Morrison’s version waltzes between the hedges like a stoned opera, The Waterboys’ soars. Both records voice a very specific feeling of hope intertwined with sorrow (the song’s spirit!), but The Waterboys version is ethereal, powerful, life-affirming, cinematic in a way not quite achieved by Morrison’s original. Maybe it’s the violin, bowed in such a way it captures the wetness of every raindrop on garden leaf. Or it’s the voice of lead singer Michael Scott, oozing with tangible yearning and lived pain, sliding the song’s emotion into the roof of your mouth and down your throat.
Unlike the rest of the songs on Astral Weeks, which are primarily fixated on the past, “Sweet Thing” sets its sight on the future. “And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain”, “And I will not remember that I ever felt the pain”, “And I will never grow so old again” – will, will, will (and a few shalls). It’s vital and triumphant songwriting, yet, in Morrison’s version, he is in between places in a way The Waterboys are not. As if to pull the future back into the present, they end theirs with an interpolated lyric from The Beatles’ “Blackbird” – “you were only waiting for this moment to be free”, an impetus to practice The Power of Now if ever there was one in song.
In a ten-year anniversary review of Astral Weeks by the late critic Lester Bangs, he describes the record as “one moment's knowledge of the miracle of life… a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.” That seems true, or at least one interpretation. But at a previous point in the piece, Bangs also says you’re in trouble when you try to explain the meaning of a “mystical document” such as this album. Even Morrison himself doesn’t seem to know what’s behind all of it. In a Rolling Stone interview quoted by Bangs, the Irish songwriter said: “There are times when I'm mystified. I look at some of the stuff that comes out, y'know. And like, there it is and it feels right, but I can't say for sure what it means.”
And there we go, back to that process of automatic writing—of these feelings, emotions, and words just coming out. This is something I’ve explored before in interview with Beach House and Rhye, where both acts spoke about a song having its own energy. But you don’t even need to believe in an otherworldly processes to feel the spirit of a song. You can just do so when listening to Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” (above) and then moving onto The Waterboys’ version. They channel the same entity, and yet The Waterboys’ make it feel even more alive, fleshed out—leaping out of the speakers and scrambling around in your ears like a hyperactive soot sprite from a Ghibli film.
I guess one YouTube comment puts it best: “The closest thing to religion that I ever experienced is Van Morrison, but I have to admit the Waterboys really nail this song. ” In other words—or at least in mine, lol—Morrison may have summoned the sensation of the song, pulling it from the ether and committing it to paper, but The Waterboys capture its essence, bringing it one step closer into our world. The wet, dewy gardens of “Sweet Thing” may not be heaven, and they may not be real either. Here though, detailed by The Waterboys, they’re a touch of a shade more vivid—exploding with colorful lashings of dynamite, cast in time. Somewhere, you hope, Van Morrison is smiling.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.