Van Morrison began his career as the vocalist for the garage band Them, scoring hits with ‘Gloria’ and ‘Here Comes The Night’. After Them disbanded, his career stalled with a stint on Bang records, where artistic frustration caused him to produce his infamous contractual obligation sessions, featuring tossed off songs like ‘Ring Worm’.
Morrison’s proper solo career began with 1968’s singular Astral Weeks, a unique statement which combined stream-of-consciousness lyrics with a fluid and spontaneous musical framework provided by the accompanying jazz musicians. Van Morrison streamlined his sound for the 1970 hit Moondance, combining his backgrounds in folk and R&B into an accessible package. He stretched out artistically with 1972’s excellent St Dominic’s Preview and 1974’s atmospheric Veedon Fleece. Veedon Fleece was followed by a three year silence, which marked the end of the first phase of his solo career.
While his subsequent solo work is arguably less consistent than his 1968-1974 albums, Van Morrison’s post-1977 career has plenty of highlights and is worth exploring. While he generally moved towards a slicker and less organic sound, he remained an interesting figure, veering from commercially oriented efforts like 1979’s excellent Into The Music to more esoteric efforts like 1980’s Common One. His continued creativity is arguably linked to continued wrestling with his faith throughout the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, his solo career has arguably been only for die-hard fans, but he enjoyed a long fertile period – Rod Stewart turned 1989’s love song to God, ‘Have I Told You Lately’ into a modern standard.
Van Morrison’s most distinct feature is his voice – an expressive instrument which synthesises his Irish roots with the R&B and jazz that he grew up hearing in Belfast. Even though his vocal prowess diminished after the mid-1970s, his voice remains distinctive. His exploration of Celtic Soul has effectively fuelled his entire career, as he veered between commercial pop and more uncompromising efforts. Even if his solo career can sometimes feel obstinate and inconsistent, his body of work is uniquely his own, and he should be remembered as a giant of his era; U2 are his only competition as Ireland’s greatest pop music export.
Van Morrison Album Reviews
Blowin’ Your Mind! | Astral Weeks | Moondance | His Band And The Street Choir | Tupelo Honey | Saint Dominic’s Preview | Hard Nose The Highway | It’s Too Late To Stop Now | Veedon Fleece | A Period of Transition | Wavelength | Into The Music | Common One | Beautiful Vision | Inarticulate Speech of the Heart | A Sense of Wonder | No Guru, No Method, No Teacher | Poetic Champions Compose | Irish Heartbeat | Avalon Sunset | Enlightenment | Hymns to the Silence | The Philosopher’s Stone
Favourite Album: Into The Music
Overlooked Gem: Beautiful Vision
Blowin’ Your Mind!
1967, not rated
After Them split up, Van Morrison’s solo career started under the control of manager Bert Berns. Van Morrison has disowned the solo debut that Berns made from his early singles. It contained the hit ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, which has never been one of my favourites – as Van Morrison himself said, “it’s not one of my best. I mean I’ve got about 300 songs that I think are better.” Van Morrison amusingly got out of his contract with Berns by recording 31 songs in one session to fulfill his obligations; including hilarious off-the-cuff songs like ‘Ringworm’.
Aged 23, and with the experiences of Them and Bang Records behind him, Van Morrison launched his solo career proper with 1968’s Astral Weeks, pursuing a sound that’s as much based in jazz as it is in rock. Morrison originally intended Astral Weeks as a rock opera, and there are strands of common narrative and places running through the songs.
Morrison credits producer Lewis Merenstein with the final shape and presentation of Astral Weeks, and interviewed in 1970 he claimed that he wouldn’t have used the jazz players that Merenstein recruited for every track. The jazz musicians, notably bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner, fill the album with improvisation, as do Morrison’s uniquely exploratory vocals, making Astral Weeks one of the least scripted albums in the rock canon. The only full band arrangement is the excellent, if somewhat out of place, ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. The rest of the songs are devoid of drums and outside the verse/chorus structure, dreamy and free flowing, and right on the extreme boundaries of the rock music umbrella.
The eight tracks can be divided into two equal categories – four shorter and more accessible pieces, all quite different in character, and four longer epics which are all similar in feel. Of the four shorter pieces, ‘Beside You’ is arguably the album’s weakest point, with Morrison’s over-emoting over a vague structure, particularly over the lines “You breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out you breath in”, one of the few times where his normally gorgeous vocals are annoying. On the other hand, the pretty ‘Sweet Thing’ is probably the album’s most accessible piece, closely followed by the punchier ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’, but the closing ‘Slim Slow Slider’ is disappointingly uneventful.
It’s the four longer tracks that provide the tone of the album, all slowly unwinding; even if they’re a bit too samey for me to really love this album in the same way that many other fans do, they do have a unique flavour all of their own. Of the four, my favourite is the opening ‘Astral Weeks’, which has a pure spirituality and freshness that probably benefits from being placed first on the album. However ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and ‘Madame George’ are also excellent, and ‘Ballerina’ is the only song that really drags.
Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anyone Van Morrison or anyone else has created, and for adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. Although Morrison arguably balanced jazzy exploration with more accessible work on subsequent albums like St. Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece, Astral Weeks is his most extreme statement which alone makes it essential as a unique effort in the canon of popular music.
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. It’s certainly more radio friendly and accessible than Astral Weeks, but both are very strong records, documenting Morrison’s early phase. Moondance is often categorised as the first part of his “domestic trilogy”, which chronicle his life at Woodstock with his wife, singer Janet Planet, and young family.
If there’s a criticism of Moondance, it’s that it’s extremely front-loaded. 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.
The second side is far less interesting; it’s still very professional, but isn’t as evocative as the first half. There’s nothing below par; it’s just that the album suffers from placing its five best and more distinctive pieces on the first side; ‘Brand New Day’ is strong, while ‘Everyone’ is redeemed by a fine clavinet part.
The excellent songs on the first side set up a wonderful mood, and the lesser songs on the second side perpetuate that, even if they don’t stand out as individual pieces. It’s a sign of Van Morrison’s stature as an artist that he can produce two fine consecutive albums with such different focuses.
His Band And The Street Choir
You know how the second side of Moondance was pleasant but unmemorable? His Band And The Street Choir is essentially an entire album of the same thing – nicely arrangements, delivered in Van Morrison’s unmistakable voice, but the song-writing isn’t as sharp as on his other early albums. His Band And The Street Choir is generally grouped with the surrounding albums – Moondance and Tupelo Honey – as part of the domestic trilogy, chronicling Morrison’s life with Janet Planet in Woodstock in upstate New York.
Only a couple of the tunes from His Band And The Street Choir stick with me. Opener ‘Domino’ is a horn infused R&B song that’s still Van Morrison’s biggest hit in the US. And the closer ‘Street Choir’ has a big memorable chorus (“Why did you leave America?”) and more dramatic tension than the rest of the album. The remainder of Street Choir is all second tier Van Morrison, often with less interesting lyrics than his best work.
There’s enough of Van Morrison’s enjoyable early sound to make His Band And The Street Choir interesting to fans, but it’s easily one of his weaker albums in his early solo career.
Like many of his compatriots before him, Van Morrison relocated to America, although in his case it was due to a woman rather than a potato famine. While Van Morrison had lived in the U.S.A. since the start of his solo career, Tupelo Honey’s country textures make for his most American sounding album. Living in Woodstock, Van Morrison was living close to The Band, and they’re perhaps one influence on the rootsier sound here.
It’s perhaps symptomatic that the strongest tracks – opening single ‘Wild Night’ and the epic title track – are those closest to Van Morrison’s more typical R&B. If you’re not in the right mood, Tupelo Honey‘s agenda of doe-eyed domestic bliss can be nauseating, but despite the throwaway nature of several tracks the overall effect is often charming. The booklet artwork helps; Van, with his tight pants and little beard, looks like a cute Celtic mythological figure and you can’t help but feel happy for him.
The central song on Tupelo Honey is the gorgeous title track; it starts off with beautiful organ, joined by Van’s delicate vocal intoning “She’s as sweet as tupelo honey/She’s an angel of the first degree.” The other two epic tracks are also enjoyable; ‘You’re My Woman’ isn’t startlingly original, but carries through on a wave of euphoria, while ‘Moonshine Whiskey’ has a fluid catchy chorus that contrasts with the taut verses.
The other standout tracks are the snappy lead-off single ‘Wild Night’, with a stylish bass entrance into the introduction, and ‘Old Old Woodstock’ which evokes the languid and rural tone of some of The Band’s work. The low point is ‘I Wanna Roo You’, which is even worse than the title suggests.
The lesser tracks do mesh into Tupelo Honey, as the whole album has a lightweight tone; a collection of mellow -tinged love songs. It’s enjoyable enough, but Tupelo Honey is one of Morrison’s lesser albums from his early catalogue.
Saint Dominic’s Preview
In yet another case of a turbulent personal life acting as the breeding ground for great art, Morrison’s failing marriage informs his music on Saint Dominic’s Preview. The love songs of the domestic trilogy are replaced with more eclectic and ambitious material. Saint Dominic’s Preview is perhaps 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.
It’s difficult to dislike this album’s five shorter songs; they’re all succinct and catchy, and enjoyment really hinges on reaction to the two longer and more esoteric tracks. ‘Listen To The Lion’ is superficially conventional, but its unique aspect is its limited lyrics as the title phrase is repeated like a mantra, demonstrating the emotional pull of Morrison’s voice; it’s surprisingly captivating over its eleven minute running time. ‘Almost Independence Day’ is more difficult, perhaps because of the Moog synthesiser that’s a key part of the arrangement, a rare foray into electronic sounds for this era of Morrison’s career and invasive for a track that’s otherwise reminiscent of Astral Weeks.
Of the less weighty material, the title track is a six minute tour-de-force in its own right, with a catchy chorus hook and spiritual atmosphere. The opening trio of ‘Jackie Wilson’, ‘Gypsy’, and ‘I Will Be There’ represent some of Morrison’s most accessible writing, with plenty of hooks and memorable choruses. With Van Morrison following his muse and coming up with accessible songs simultaneously, Saint Dominic’s Preview is easily among the man’s essential works, a slightly flawed but still fascinating album.
Hard Nose The Highway
You can’t go too far wrong with Van Morrison’s 1968-1974 period; Hard Nose The Highway is justifiably reckoned as one of his lesser albums from the era, but it’s still an enjoyable listen. If St. Dominic’s Previewwas a brilliant summation of Van Morrison’s career up to that point, then Hard Nose The Highway is arguably a predictable retread.
The record also has more of a smooth, jazz-inflected feel, and it’s a little blander than usual, but it’s still sonically creative in the opening ‘Snow In San Anselmo’, which is one of the weirder successes in the Van Morrison catalogue. The two covers, the traditional British ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, referred to here as ‘Purple Heather’, and the more bizarre choice of ‘Bein’ Green’ are also an indication of Van Morrison running out of ideas, but they’re nicely performed, and none of the above objections detract from the fact that most of the songs on this album are perfectly solid.
Despite the overall feeling that it’s a relatively minor work, the major issue with Hard Nose The Highway is simply that the ten minute track ‘Autumn Song’ drags more than it should; a pleasant but generic jazz tune is stretched out to unnecessary proportions, far less interesting than the previous record’s ‘Listen To The Lion’. The lyrical agenda of ‘The Great Deception’ is blatant (“Have you ever heard about the great Rembrandt/Have you ever heard about how he could paint/And he didn’t have enough money for his brushes”), but works fine musically.
The main appeal of Hard Nose The Highway is the pair of opening tracks; ‘Snow In San Alselmo’ is one of Van Morrison’s best arty tracks, with a eerie feeling and weird choir, while ‘Warm Love’ is one of his best commercial songs, with an accessible melody and utilising his pretty upper register. The title track is perfectly solid, while he also manages to bring something new to the somewhat over-used ‘Purple Heather’.
Hard Nose The Highway isn’t Van Morrison’s strongest album by any stretch of the imagination; it’s the quietly under-achieving record between two milestones, but Morrison was in such good form at this time that even his under-achievements are worth hearing.
It’s Too Late To Stop Now
Everyone who was anyone in the mid-1970s made a double live album, and It’s Too Late To Stop Now is Van Morrison’s, recorded on the tour for Hard Nose The Highway and compiled from recordings made in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and London. One definite point in its favour is that only half of these songs are drawn from Van Morrison’s solo albums; the remainder are R&B covers from the likes of Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, and Sam Cooke, plus ‘Here Comes The Night’ and ‘Gloria’, the signature songs from his years fronting Them. As much as he integrates influences from folk and rock into his musical palette on his studio albums, Van Morrison’s love for R&B music has been well documented, and it’s at the forefront on this live album.
On the other hand, I don’t enjoy the backing band; too sedate and piano-centric, while the backing vocals and strings also drag proceedings into Vegas territory. But this is primarily Van Morrison’s show and a showcase for his vocal abilities, and his voice is in fine fettle, blasting his way through ‘Warm Love’ and taking centre stage on the lengthy ‘Listen To The Lion’. The band sounds great on songs like ‘Domino’ and ‘I’ve Been Working’, where the guitar and bass are audible, while ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ is punchier than its studio counterpart. The most interesting interpretation is ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and it would have been fascinating to hear more of the loose, exploratory tracks from Astral Weeks translated into a live setting.
It’s Too Late To Stop Now often gets cited as a landmark live album, and if you like to hear Van Morrison take on R&B standards interlaced with some originals and accompanied by a whole lot of piano, it’s great; I’ll take the concise pop-smith of Moondance or the mystical troubadour of Veedon Fleece instead.
Veedon Fleece was the last album from Van Morrison’s initial run of solo records; subsequently he went into semi-retirement, 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 Fleeceis 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.
While comparisons to Astral Weeks are inevitable, it is different enough to have its own identity; there are few vestiges of jazz, and while the songs are hardly straightforward verse/chorus constructions, they’re not as meandering and free form. Despite suffering from the same front loading problem as Moondance, and despite feeling somewhat haphazard in places with several of the best songs petering out unexpectedly, Veedon Fleece still stands as one of Van Morrison’s better records, capturing an atmosphere of melancholy and mysticism.
Like Moondance, the first side is excellent. ‘Fair Play’ sets the scene with acoustic grace, while ‘Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’ introducing mystical themes and emotional poignancy. ‘Who Was That Masked Man?’ uses a devastating falsetto, and the centrepiece is the eight minute ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River’, which provides a dramatic vocal showcase while still containing a brilliant song underneath.
On the second side, the low key closer ‘Country Fair’ is the only real disappointment, but as a whole it is one dimensional after the more diverse first half. ‘Come Here My Love’ is pretty and melodic, while ‘Cul De Sac’ and ‘Bulbs’ both have their share of angst and urgency. But despute a weaker second half, Veedon Fleece is a moody, fascinating record with its share of great moments.
A Period of Transition
Van Morrison took a two and a half year hiatus from releasing albums in the mid 1970s, a very long break in an era when albums were often released annually. During this time he did appear in The Band’s The Last Waltz, with some memorable high kicks, while his 1974 set at Montreux Jazz Festival includes a group of songs that never appeared on a studio record. Morrison was apparently struggling with writers block, and A Period of Transition was certainly his most underwhelming album to date. Van Morrison collaborated with Dr John, who had also appeared on The Last Waltz, and his piano helps fill out the smooth sound.
As the title implies, A Period of Transition moves away from the often acoustic/folk based sound of Morrison’s early albums, and to the smooth jazz sound that defined his later work. But the issue is that A Period of Transition is a weak collection of under-written songs. At 35 minutes and 7 songs, it’s skimpy to start with. ‘Flamingos Fly’ is a standout song with an upbeat tempo and vibrant horn parts, and ‘Joyous Sound’ is energetic and fun. But many of the songs aren’t memorable beyond a repeated chorus phrase.
It’s a good practice run for the stronger albums like Wavelength and Into The Music that would follow, but A Period of Transition is the weakest album Van Morrison made during the 1970s.
Like the albums that followed it, Wavelength is slick and commercial, and the style suits Morrison as his vocals are unique enough that a generic musical backing isn’t a problem. It does mean that Wavelength can’t coast by on atmosphere like some of Van Morrison’s previous work did; the album is a little monotonous in places as some of the songs drag on too long, and Wavelength works best when he’s laying on the pop hooks.
There are pop hooks galore on pop songs like the title track and ‘Kingdom Hall’, while the short, punchy ‘Natalia’ is arguably the most memorable piece. The gentle ‘Hungry For Your Love’, with Morrison playing electric piano is melodic and memorable, while the most significant piece is the closer ‘Take It Where You Find It’, which slowly builds into a nine minute epic, with the refrain centering around “lost dreams and found dreams in America”.
After the tentative A Period of Transition, Wavelength is a step forward for Van Morrison; its more polished sound would be utilised for 1979’s career highlight Into The Music.
Into The Music
Into The Music is firmly adult contemporary in sound, 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. There’s still plenty of R&B in Van Morrison’s vocals, and plenty of folk underpinning in songs like ‘Rolling Hills’ and ‘Troubadours’, enough authenticity in the music to give its poppy facade depth.
The jaunty opener ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ is the best known song here, but most of these first side tracks feel like hit singles. Van Morrison discusses his relationship with his muse on the infectiously arranged ‘You Make Me Feel So Free’, with its irresistible piano riff, while Ry Cooder plays slide guitar on the unambiguous God rock of ‘Full Force Gale’ (“Like a full force gale/I was lifted up again/I was lifted up again by the Lord”). Folkie Robin Williamson plays penny whistle on the explicitly folk derived ‘Troubadours’ and ‘Rolling Hills’.
If the first side was great, the second side is even stronger, devoted to songs that share the joyous pop arrangements of the first side, but are longer and more exploratory. The eight minutes of ‘And The Healing Has Begun’ allows Morrison room for vocal improvisation, but it’s still a catchy pop song at heart, while the cover ‘It’s All In The Game’ provides the most contemplative moments.
I’m sure lots of Morrison purists will insist that moodier albums like Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece are his best, but Into The Music is a rush of musical euphoria.
Into The Music was among Van Morrison’s most accessible efforts; its followup is among the least. Common One plunges directly into mystic spiritual territory, and with two songs passing the 15 minute mark there’s little in the way of pop hooks. Losing pianist Mark Jordan from the Into The Music band changes the feel of the record significantly; Common One is more open sounding and jazz oriented, with more room for improvisation from Van Morrison’s vocals, and the saxophone and trumpet.
The result is arguably the most divisive album of Van Morrison’s career, as its lengthy song structures push it close to jazz (as admirers would classify it) or easy listening (as its detractors would label it); and there’s justifiable grounds for regarding Common One as a flat-out masterpiece, a noble failure, or as an outright snooze fest.
While it’s not immediately compelling, the ambient atmosphere of the longer pieces is quite unique in Van Morrison’s catalogue. A couple of the shorter pieces are accessible enough; ‘Satisfied’, which Christgau accurately categorises as “the only vaguely fast one”, could have fit nicely onto Into The Music with its punchy R&B arrangement, while ‘Wild Honey’ is concise and prettily melodic, with a sentimental arrangement and lyric (“don’t you feel my heart beat/just for you”) that rubs up nicely against the more esoteric material. The more esoteric, fifteen minute material comprises of ‘When Heart Is Open’, a subdued improvisational piece based on Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, and the more urgent ‘Summertime In England’, where Van Morrison rants about T.S. Eliot and William Blake. Add in the charming opener ‘Haunts Of Ancient Peace’, and there’s plenty of really good material here.
Common One takes some effort to decode, and it’s probably the least approachable album that Van Morrison ever made, but there’s plenty to enjoy for dedicated fans.
Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, like a calmer take on the Into The Music sound, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of Christianity and Irish heritage. But even if he’s treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records, even if it’s less adventurous and less universal than his earlier work. Guests include Mark Knopfler, who plays guitar on ‘Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Aryan Mist’, while Morrison himself plays piano on the closing instrumental ‘Scandinavia’, where his sprays of notes are melodically compelling.
Enforcing an initial reaction that Beautiful Vision is bland and uninteresting, at least a couple of these songs are abjectly uneventful – the monotonous title track and ‘Aryan Mist’ both wander past without adding anything to the record. But digging deeper, there are a couple of catchy potential singles in the form of ‘Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Dweller On The Threshold’, the former a seemingly autobiographical tale from Van Morrison’s days in Belfast inspired by R&B, and the latter balancing wistful lyrics with a fast tempo. The standout track, though, is ‘Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell’, where R&B, jazz, and gospel are fused into a glorious whole, Van Morrison’s voice floating above the female backing vocals. The two Celtic influenced pieces, ‘Northern Music (Solid Ground)’ and ‘Celtic Ray’, give the album a solid beginning, while the instrumental ‘Scandinavia’ is a surprisingly effective coda.
The insular world that Morrison creates here isn’t ideal for neophytes, but Beautiful Vision is like a more mature, calmer version of Into The Music, and it’s not as far from that album’s greatness as it may seem on first impression.
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart has a weird, off-kilter adult contemporary, new age sound, a musical landscape dominated by synthesizers and saxophones, but it’s also creative and atmospheric. It’s mostly instrumental, and a lot of the vocals are wordless – Van Morrison said that he got the idea for the album from a Shavian saying “that idea of communicating with as little articulation as possible, at the same time being emotionally articulate.” Van Morrison famously changed his religious views many times during the 1980s, and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is dedicated to Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard.
‘Higher Than The World’ is a pretty opener, while the first iteration of the title track demonstrates the beauty that Van Morrison could achieve within his adult contemporary approach. ‘September Night’ is perhaps the apex of the album’s unique approach, with Van Morrison’s wordless grunts and cries of ecstasy punctuated by synthesisers and backing vocals. ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ is energetic with its lively guitar work, even with the synthesiser backing, but I prefer the more traditional Celtic version of ‘Irish Heartbeat’ that Van Morrison recorded in 1989 with The Chieftains.
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is a bizarre record in Van Morrison’s catalogue – it’s fascinating and unique, but it’s certainly not a good place to start an exploration of the man’s work.
A Sense of Wonder
A Sense of Wonder is a grab bag of different Van Morrison styles from his earlier 1980s albums – it wouldn’t be surprising if some of these tracks were outtakes from previous records. Thematically, several of the tracks touch on Van Morrison’s interest in poetry – opener ‘Torn Down a la Rimbaud’ references 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, while ‘Let The Slave Incorporating The Price of Experience’ is based on a poem by William Blake. ‘Crazy Jane on God’, based on a poem by Yeats, was withdrawn from the album at the last minute, and eventually surfaced on The Philosopher’s Stone outtake collection. It’s certainly to the album’s detriment – it’s one of the most memorable, adventurous pieces from the era, with the “all things remain in God” hook.
‘A Sense of Wonder’ strikes a nice balance between his more exploratory works and a commercial pop sound, and the two opening songs bring enough energy to work; the opening track ‘Torn Down A La Rimbaud’ is the most notable song on the record. The song was started during Van Morrison’s period of writer’s block in the mid 1970s, an interesting parallel for Morrison to draw on, given that Rimbaud quit poetry writing in his twenties after running out of inspiration. ‘Evening Meditation’ sounds like it could have come from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, but doesn’t sound as daring in this context. There are covers of Ray Charles and Mose Allison. Elsewhere, it’s very smooth and safe sounding; coupled with the Christian themes, like ‘Ancient of Days’ and ‘The Master’s Eyes’, A Sense of Wonder wouldn’t be out of place in a Christian bookstore.
It’s worth hearing highlights like ‘Torn Down a la Rimbaud’, but Van Morrison has recorded a lot of albums and A Sense Of Wonder isn’t one of his more notable ones.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher
If A Sense of Wonder was a pleasant but often rote record, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, sounds altogether more inspired. It’s in the spirit of Van Morrison’s more exploratory works (Astral Weeks, Common One), with searching songs like ‘In The Garden’ and ‘Tir Na Nog’. These are spiritual cousins to songs from his more free form records, and the lyrics “garden wet with rain” and the “kiss my eyes” vocal ad lib at the end of ‘Tir Na Nog’ both reference Astral Weeks. But apart from the occasional moment of improvisation, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is carefully arranged, lacking the vocal and instrumental free form of Van Morrison’s other searching records.
The searching songs are the record’s most striking moments, but No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is a more diverse set. There are pretty and succint ballads like ‘Oh The Warm Feeling’ and ‘One Irish Rover’, and upbeat blues songs like ‘Ivory Tower’. There’s a beautiful woodwind part on the gorgeous ‘Foreign Window’, while Van Morrison sounds committed enough vocally to elevate potentially rote material like the bluesy ‘Thanks For The Information’. No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is adult contemporary, but it’s often gorgeous – most of the instrumental textures come from piano, acoustic guitars and orchestral instruments. There’s little of the drum programming and synthesizers you’d expect on a 1986 pop record, and it’s altogether organic, warm and lovely.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is a strong contender for Van Morrison’s best record of the 1980s, a deep and beautiful collection of songs.
Poetic Champions Compose
Poetic Champions Compose was originally conceived as a collection of instrumentals, but after completing three tracks, it morphed into a more conventional Van Morrison project. This was probably a good decision – the record is booked-ended by instrumentals, but they’re merely effective at setting a mood, and it’s the more conventional songs that are the most striking. The final product isn’t anything revolutionary – Poetic Champions Compose is one of Van Morrison’s smoothest, more mellow records, but it’s tuneful and tasteful.
This far into his career, Van Morrison’s still capable of radio friendly pop gems like ‘Queen of the Slipstream’, which is tuneful and pretty. There’s also the romantic ‘Someone Like You’, which is warm and heartfelt enough to feel profound. The Negro spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is bent to fit the disc’s mood, and works well. There are more literary references on ‘Alan Watts Blues’ and the repetition of the pretty riff of ‘Did Ye Get Healed?’ allows for beauty when the song opens up to become more spacious.
It doesn’t break any new ground, but Poetic Champions Compose is a very solid, warmly enjoyable Van Morrison album.
Van Morrison connected with Irish traditional folk perennials The Chieftains for Irish Heartbeat; its ten tracks comprise of eight traditional Irish tunes and two reworkings of traditionally oriented Van Morrison songs. As much as Van Morrison is connecting with his Irish roots in tackling traditional fare, he’s also bringing his worn, R&B influenced, vocal cords to Irish Heartbeat, bringing a unique spin to these songs.
At the same time, Van Morrison’s aged yelp isn’t as well suited to the slower songs here – ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ both drag. Van Morrison’s two originals, ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and ‘Celtic Ray’, drawn from his early 1980s albums, fit in well with the time-tested classics. The best moments of Irish Heartbeat are the upbeat Irish pub songs like ‘Star of the County Down’ and ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’, which rollick along gleefully with Morrison’s enthusiastic vocals and The Chieftains’ authentic backing.
Irish Heartbeat is often fun, but by definition it’s a side-note in Van Morrison’s rich catalogue.
Avalon Sunset, Van Morrison’s 19th studio album, was a commercial success, and his fastest album to reach gold status in the UK. But while it attracted more attention than usual, it feels like Morrison is treading a well worn path by this point, and it’s difficult to get excited about most of its tracks.
To Van Morrison’s credit, he was able to write a popular standard on Avalon Sunset, unusual for a pop artist into the third decade of their recording career; ‘Have I Told You Lately’ was popularised by Rod Steward, and has been co-opted as a popular wedding tune, but it’s a love song to God.
Similarly, the other songs that deal most explicitly with faith are also strong. It’s possible to dismiss the Cliff Richard duet ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ as mawkish, but I like the contrast between Richard’ boyish tenor and Morrison’s emotive yelp. ‘When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God’ is tuneful and thoughtful.
Avalon Sunset is a solid album with no obvious throwaways, but besides these highlights I don’t have a whole lot of use for it; it’s mostly Van Morrison dispensing wisdom over a smooth backing. Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you’re probably better off finding the album’s best songs on a compilation.
While Van Morrison continued to release successful albums throughout the 1980s, he attained a new level of popularity in 1990 – a greatest hits compilation released earlier in that year helped to cement his reputation as a legend, enjoying strong sales and critical acclaim. Accordingly, a feeling of confidence permeates through Enlightenment, the most invigorated and confident that Morrison had sounded for a while.
The energy is most clearly on display on the excellent single and lead-off track ‘Real Real Gone’ – a song which dates back to the Common One sessions ten years earlier, although the version here is more memorable than the 1980 take that later surfaced on Philosopher’s Stone, with a memorable horn part. A combo of British jazz musicians from the 1960s make up the excellent horn section, also used on other upbeat songs like ‘Youth of 1,000 Summers’ and ‘She’s My Baby’. The latter is unusually direct from Morrison, but it’s effective, a gospel-tinged declaration of love. ‘Avalon of the Heart’ is the prettiest song here, with enough mystique to distinguish itself from routine adult contemporary.
Twenty solo albums into his career, Enlightement is surprisingly vital featuring respectable doses of energy and inspiration.
Hymns to the Silence
Van Morrison had a great run of solo albums right up to this point – even when his material was a little sleepy, he exuded charisma and mystique. But on Hymns to the Silence he abruptly crosses a line to mundane – it’s like the worst elements of Avalon Sunset stretched out over two discs. The lyrics are often complaining about his career in show-business or predictable love songs. Musically, it’s telling that two traditional hymns fit neatly into this safe-sounding record – his version of ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ with female backing singers and a spoken section is excruciating, but a pretty take on ‘Be Thou My Vision’ is one of the album’s redeeming features.
The lengthy title track is my favourite song here, and ‘Take Me Back’ is also a valiant attempt to capture the wild mystical energy of earlier epics. ‘Why Must I Always Explain?’ recycles the melody from ‘Tupelo Honey’ – it works musically, as it’s at a much faster tempo than the earlier song, although it’s a shame the lyrics are more of Van Morrison’s self-justifying tirades. There are some other pretty tracks, like ‘Pagan Streams’ and ‘Carrying A Torch’, but they’re outnumbered by tracks when Morrison is merely going through the motions. The nadir is ‘Quality Street’, with clumsy lyrics like “She can’t be beat, she makes me complete/On Quality Street”.
There’s an a passable single album among Hymns to the Silence, but Van Morrison didn’t have enough material for a double album, and after twenty years of good taste, his judgement has often lapsed here.
The Philosopher’s Stone
This outtakes collection chronicles the years between 1969 and 1988, although it concentrates on the 1970s. It’s mostly previous unreleased songs, but there are also five alternate versions, including ‘Bright Side of the Road’. There’s plenty of good material on The Philosopher’s Stone, but there’s not much great material – it’s a treasure trove for Van Morrison fanatics, but newcomers should prioritise his studio albums from the same era. It is notable for featuring songs from his abandoned 1975 record, Mechanical Bliss.
It seems that Van Morrison was an excellent judge of what to include on his records, especially as the standout track here is one that was relegated to an outtake against his wishes; ‘Crazy Jane on God’ would have been the centrepiece on A Sense of Wonder, but it was cut from the album due to W.B. Yeats’ estate refusal to sanction the use of his lyrics. Elsewhere, there are plenty of minor pleasures – Morrison utilises a gorgeous falsetto on ‘Not Supposed To Break Down’, while there’s a much better version of ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’, originally on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
I picked up this outtakes collection after seeing it garner a lot of critical acclaim – these are good outtakes, but there’s little essential material here.
Ten Favourite Van Morrison Songs
Saint Dominic’s Preview
And It Stoned Me
Into The Mystic
You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River
It’s All In The Game
Full Force Gale
Snow In San Anselmo
Back to 1970s Album Reviews….