Van Morrison’s voice is an expressive instrument which synthesises his Irish roots with the R&B and jazz that he grew up hearing in Belfast. His exploration of Celtic soul has fuelled his entire career, as he veered between commercial pop and more uncompromising efforts.
His early studio records illustrate this divide; 1968’s Astral Weeks was an expressive song cycle with stream-of-consciousness lyrics, while 1970’s Moondance was a collection of punchy, radio-friendly R&B songs.
Van Morrison’s Five Best Studio Albums
#5: Veedon Fleece
Veedon Fleece was the last album from Van Morrison’s initial run of solo records; subsequently he went into semi-retirement for three years, only emerging to appear in The Band’s The Last Waltz. In some respects, it’s almost the completion of the circle begun with Astral Weeks; returning to Ireland at the end of his marriage, Veedon Fleece is more steeped in acoustic mysticism than any of his releases since Astral Weeks, and it’s similarly loose in feel. It’s also more noticeably more Irish than anything he’d released previously; there’s little R&B here, using more folk-oriented, acoustic instrumentation, and the lyrics reference William Blake and figures from Irish mythology.
#4: Astral Weeks
The improvised song cycle Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anything that Van Morrison (or anyone else) has ever created, and for adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. He’d return to the virtuoso singing, stream of consciousness later in his career, like on the second side of Into The Music and on 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Astral Weeks shows it in its purest form.
Astral Weeks showcased the stream-of-consciousness, improvisational side of Van Morrison’s music, Moondance is based around punchy R&B and concise pop songs. Side one is packed with five outstanding compositions; the title track, where Van plays Sinatra, is the most well known, but ‘Crazy Love’ is pretty, ‘Caravan’ is jaunty, ‘Into The Mystic’ is lovely and esoteric, while ‘And It Stoned Me’ is all of the above.
#2: Saint Dominic’s Preview
Morrison’s failing marriage informs Saint Dominic’s Preview. The love songs of the “domestic trilogy” (Van Morrison’s three records from 1970 and 1971) are replaced with more eclectic and ambitious material. Saint Dominic’s Preview is the quintessential album of Van Morrison’s early career, covering both punchy R&B pop craft like the opening ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’ and artier impulses like the ten minute semi-improvisations that close each side of the original LP.
#1: Into The Music
Into The Music is a blue-print of the adult contemporary direction than Van Morrison would pursue during the 1980s, but the song writing is so sharp that it’s his best album. It’s slickly produced and loaded with backing vocalists, strings, saxophones, and other adult contemporary paraphernalia, but for these joyous songs the sensory overload approach works beautifully, like being swept away by a wave of intertwined sexual and spiritual power.
These five albums are among Van Morrison’s most well received, placing the acclaimed Astral Weeks at #4 is unconventional. Dedicated Van Morrison fans tend to gravitate to his more insular, atmospheric albums like 1980’s Common One and 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.
My favourite Van Morrison song isn’t drawn from any of those albums – it’s the title track from 1971’s Tupelo Honey:
Unlike many of his 1970s contemporaries, Van Morrison went on to enjoy a productive 1980s: https://albumreviews.blog/2018/11/06/favourite-five-van-morrison-in-the-1980s/.
There’s also more coverage of Van Morrison here: https://albumreviews.blog/reviews/van-morrison/
Do you have a favourite Van Morrison album? Or a favourite song? Should I be checking out his post 1991 career?