I’ve already posted about my favourite five Van Morrison albums, but all five were released in the 1960s and 1970s. While he didn’t quite touch his earlier peaks, Van Morrison continued to release fine albums in the 1980s.
While other rock veterans like Neil Young, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan struggled with the 1980s, sounding out of ideas or overwhelmed by new technology, Van Morrison continued to follow his muse. While you could argue that his 1980s catalogue strayed too close to polite adult contemporary, he only dabbled mildly with fashionable 1980s trends like synthesizers and reverb, and his records sound elegant and gorgeous.
If his vocal power was diminished from its earlier peaks, his voice was still distinctive. He could still write hit songs – ‘Have I Told You Lately?’ from Avalon Sunset, ‘Queen of the Slipstream’, and ‘Dweller on the Threshold’ are all succinct and melodic songs that hold up to his earlier hits.
For much of the 1980s, Morrison alternated between exploratory works, a la Astral Weeks, and pop-oriented records, a la Moondance. This duality of approaches helps to make the journey through his 1980s catalogue more enjoyable. During the 1980s, Van Morrison released eight studio albums, including the collaboration with The Chieftains on 1988’s Irish Heartbeat. Here are my five favourites from the era.
#5 Poetic Champions Compose
Poetic Champions Compose was originally conceived as an instrumental album, but morphed into a more conventional Van Morrison project. It was a good decision- a full album of instrumentals in the vein of the three featured here would have functioned merely as a mood piece. But most of the songs here are strong, like the upbeat ‘Queen of the Slipstream’, the romantic ‘Someone Like You’, and ‘Did Ye Get Healed?’
#4 Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart features a weird, off-kilter new age sound, a musical landscape dominated by synthesizers and saxophones, creative and atmospheric. The album is mostly instrumental, and a lot of the vocals are wordless. ‘September Night’ is the apex of the album’s unique approach, with Van Morrison’s wordless grunts and cries of ecstasy punctuated by synthesizers and backing vocals.
#3 Common One
If you enjoy the spacey improvisations of Astral Weeks, chances are that Common One will be among your favourite Van Morrison albums from the 1980s. It’s dreamy and mystical, and a couple of songs stretch longer than fifteen minutes. While the improvisations of ‘When Heart Is Open’ and the poetic rants of ‘Summertime in England’ are the record’s dominant features, there’s also the R&B of ‘Satisfied’ and the pretty ‘Wild Honey’.
#2 Beautiful Vision
Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of spirituality and Irish heritage. Even if he’s sometimes treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records. There’s melodic pop like ‘Dweller on the Threshold’ and more atmospheric material like ‘Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell’.
#1 No Guru, No Method, No Teacher
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is one of Morrison’s searching, exploratory records. But even though it quotes Astral Weeks in several places, it’s a more tightly arranged album, and its gorgeous instrumental are carefully composed. The longer pieces like ‘In The Garden’ and ‘Tir Na Nog’ are the most striking, but there are also shorter pieces of beauty like ‘One Irish Rover’ and ‘Foreign Window’.
If you’re curious, the strongest 1980s Van Morrison album to miss the cut was 1989’s Avalon Sunset – it’s pretty and ‘Have I Told You Lately’ is a memorable song, but it doesn’t feel ground-breaking, covering similar territory to Poetic Champions Compose.
My overall list of ten favourite Van Morrison studio albums:
#1 – Into The Music (1979)
#2 – Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)
#3 – Moondance (1970)
#4 – Astral Weeks (1968)
#5 – Veedon Fleece (1974)
#6 – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
#7 – Beautiful Vision (1982)
#8 – Common One (1980)
#9 – Wavelength (1978)
#10 – Tupelo Honey (1971)
Do you enjoy Van Morrison’s 1980s work? Do you have an overall favourite?