Friday, 17 August 2018

Van Morrison - Hymns To The Silence (1991)


  

Released September 1991

Recorded in Somerset and London

I read recent a critic saying something along the lines of "what possessed Van Morrison to put a couple of 19th century Christian hymns on a rock'n'roll album?". Well, I have to say this - it is not a rock'n'roll album". It is a Van Morrison album.

For better or worse, it is a double album and suffers the fate of all double albums in that most agree that it could have been condensed into one album. Yes, the hymns are on there, but they add to the appeal of an album that is largely taken up with feelings of nostalgia for days gone by, and they fit the bill perfectly, as they provided a musical soundtrack for the young George Ivan Morrison. There are other blatantly nostalgic pieces on the album too and also examples of the world-weary, cynical, moaning Morrison, as he bellyaches about those within the music industry he perceives as having done him wrong.

The lively, slightly funky "Professional Jealousy" is one of these "Morrison moaners" and, despite the negative, bilious lyrics, is a catchy tune, as indeed is the lyrically morose "I'm Not Feeling It Anymore", which, perversely, has a likeable, jaunty melody. "Ordinary Life" is a pumping, harmonica-drenched blues and Van moans about a "nagging wife" amongst other things. Van hadn't been this bluesy for quite a while. It is good to hear and provided a pointer towards the direction he would take for many more years after this. "Some Peace Of Mind" is a lovely, saxophone-introduced jazzy number, with Georgie Fame's Hammond organ to the foe and Van's vocal quite mellow and laid-back. "I'm just a man, doing the best I can, don't you understand, I just want some peace of mind", he sings, so again, however, on a chilled-out melody he injects those familiar old moans. Musically, though, the jazz influences are creeping more and more into his work. They certainly continue with "So Complicated", which sounds like something from swinging fifties London.

"I Can't Stop Loving You" is a bluesy cover of the Ray Charles classic, but with some added Celtic-style violin and flute. "Why Must I Always Explain?" has a lovely, swirling Celtic intro and a fantastically soulful Morrison vocal. Unfortunately, he is griping again. This really is his most self-pitying, complaining album yet. The thing is, he gives even his rancorous complaints such a soulful delivery that it just doesn't matter. Rave on, Van, rave on. "Village Idiot", conversely, is one of Morrison's most sensitive songs. It sounds callous and cruel, with its chorus of "village idiot"  but is so tender in places - "don't you know he's on to something, you can see it in his eye, sometimes he looks so happy, as he goes strolling by...". The music is beautiful to the song too. I really find it an incredibly moving song. The lad could pick a horse, too. "See Me Though Part II (Just A Closer Walk With Thee)" is the first of the two afore-mentioned hymns. It features gospel backing singers on the hymn with Van narrating a most evocative, youth in Belfast passage - "Hyndford Street and Hank Williams, Sydney Bechet on Sunday afternoons in winter...". Marvellously atmospheric stuff. This was one of Morrison's favourite hymns. Good for him for recording it. Music is about memories, Van Morrison knows that better than anyone, particularly on this album, which from now on, becomes full of it.

"Take Me Back" is eight minutes of Van recalling carefree golden summer days, cold dark winter Sunday evenings, in the "days before rock'n'roll..." in an almost spoken vocal. He recalls "when life made more sense..". The complaining has stopped now, a few drinks would seem to have got him all misty-eyed and nostalgic and that is the theme of the rest of the album. Some classic harmonica is interjected in the middle and Van intones "take me back, take me back, take me way back...".

"By His Grace" starts what is, in effect "part two" of the album, the monumental "Take Me Back" having taken us to the interval. It is a lively, energetic and soulful spiritual but short track, with some nice gospelly backing vocals. If this is Van still being religious, I'll take it. "All Saints Day" is another of those fifties-style, organ-led jazzy numbers. Some are not to keen on them, but I feel they sit quite well in the whole "looking back to the days before rock'n'roll" theme. Georgie Fame takes the lead vocal with his trademark, smoky voice before Van joins in briefly, at the end. The next three tracks exemplify the very essence of this album - the nearly ten minute, mystical, peaceful "Hymns To The Silence" harks back to "Common One" in many ways; the wonderfully atmospheric "On Hyndford Street" has Van growling his Belfast brogue over a haunting synthesiser-only backing in a recitation of the things that he recalls from his youth, which is then recalled again by an impassioned delivery of the hymn "Be Thou My Vision". Along with "See Me Through" and "Take Me Back", these are the cornerstones of this mighty, autobiographical album.

In many ways, the album should have ended there. It has certainly said what it needs to say. The remaining tracks, good as though some of them are (particularly "Carrying A Torch"), just seem like "bonus tracks" to me. As the strains of "Be Thou My Vision" come to an end, it feels as if the service is over, and we all file out. Sanctified.

B+

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