Thursday, 2 August 2018

Van Morrison




"If it weren't for guys like Ray Charles and Solomon Burke, I wouldn't be where I am today. Those guys were the inspiration that got me going. If it wasn't for that kind of music, I couldn't do what I'm doing now" - Van Morrison

I initially became aware of Van Morrison in the mid seventies, because my friend's older sister had the Brown Eyed Girl single from 1967. I loved that, and also, as a result of David Bowie's cover of Here Comes The Night on 1973's Pin Ups, checked out Them's original version of it, which she also had. From then, though, he sort of passed me by as punk and new wave took over my angry young spirit, until I was walking through Piccadilly Circus one hot afternoon in the early eighties. I went into "Our Price" record shop ( I could show you where it used to be, but it is long gone now, of course) and they were playing this great song - really soulful and with a supremely evocative vocal. I asked the assistant who it was. The song was Crazy Love from Morrison's Moondance album. I duly "got into" Morrison and starting exploring his back catalogue - mainly the early stuff, Moondance and His Band And The Street Choir. Then I started enjoying his more mystical material like Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. I have been with him ever since, through his various journeys - spiritualism, Christianity, jazz, blues, soul, Caledonian soul - he has been putting out albums very year or so for decades now and I am always able to get something out of all of them.


Many have accused him of being formulaic, particularly in his later years. I see him more as trustworthy and honest. You know what you're going to get and if you like it then you'll be fine. The same theory applies to his live performances. On stage banter is a kept to a non-existent level. Good. Just play your sublime music.

The man is, of course, a "complex" character - almost simultaneously giving and generous yet mind-bogglingly mean-spirited. A great quote is that you can still really like his music despite having met him. I should know, my Father was the same sort of man. The thing is, when those characters choose to give, they have so much there to enrich our lives. Van Morrison is one of those people.

THE EARLY YEARS (1967-1974)



Blowin' Your Mind (1967)


Brown Eyed Girl/He Ain't Give You None/T. B. Sheets/Spanish Rose/Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)/Ro Ro Rosey/Who Drove The Red Sports Car/Midnight Special  

"He never has been, never will be anything approaching a psychedelic user – wants nothing to do with it, wants nothing to do with any drug of any kind" - Janet Planet
                             
The first solo Van Morrison album is a strange, short affair and one, I suspect, that Morrison has long since disowned. It was released without his consent, so, for many people, his solo career began with Astral Weeks, the following year. Whatever its derivation, it is actually, I find, a surprisingly good listen. The sound quality is superb, almost a revelation, and you can hear the seeds of Astral Weeks being sown here and there across the album. The cover is pretty awful though.

A lot of the material is very reminiscent of the work he did with Them, particularly He Ain't Give You None, which has that blues guitar, swirling Dylanesque organ and crystal clear cymbal sound that Them utilised a lot, almost like Dylan's Blonde On Blonde "wild mercury sound". This is great track, actually, "I got messed up in a place called Notting Hill Gate..." Van tells us, as he evokes "backstreet jelly roll" for the first time. For 1967, this is a great slice of bluesy rock. Obviously influenced by Dylan, but impressive all the same. Brown Eyed Girl had kicked off the album before that and it just stands alone as a great single, totally incongruous in the Morrison canon, of course, but none the less wonderful for it. T.B. Sheets is a menacing, morose song concerning a premature death. It rumbles industrially on for around nine minutes in a bassy, bluesy Stones-influenced way, but is very effective and very disturbing in places. "I can almost smell your T.B. sheets on your sickbed.." is not something you want to listen to for pleasure very often. Written by one so young, it is a shocking and mortally aware song. In many ways, though, it is one of the best sixties-style blues he had recorded, though. It is actually quite remarkable.

Spanish Rose has a jaunty, Sandie Shaw-type melody, some Spanish guitar and a Latin-ish finger-popping rhythm. Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye) is very Rolling Stones, circa 1965-1966 influenced piece of blues pop with some impressive guitar parts. The tracks on this album have mid sixties Dylan and Rolling Stones all over them.

Ro Ro Rosey is a pumping, upbeat (again Stonesy) sort of Brown Eyed Girl meets Gloria. It is another one that has many echoes of Them about it. Indeed, if you did not know, you would say it was Them. Who Drove The Red Sports Car is a wonderful slice of early Morrison bassy, slow grinding blues. Morrison is particularly impressive on the "ad hoc" vocal improvisation at the end. The album ends with a harmonica-drenched cover of Midnight Special. Every now and again, Morrison plays this live, or on Jools Holland's show. It is played rockingly here, with some razor-sharp guitar. You know, I have been pleasantly surprised digging this album out again.

Astral Weeks (1968)


Astral Weeks/Beside You/Sweet Thing/Cyprus Avenue/The Way That Young Lovers Do/Madame George/Ballerina/Slim Slow Slider 

"It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison's previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by The Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work" - Lester Bangs        

After some what would prove to be somewhat typical legal wrangling and general bad feeling with Bang Records regarding the rights to most of Van Morrison’s back catalogue thus far, or something like that (too complicated to bother with now), an album was finally recorded.

Morrison was now, in 1968,  moving clearly away from the fast-paced rhythm and blues that had characterised his output while part of the beat group, Them, and some of his solo recordings from 1967. Rather than going “psychedelic” like so many other groups and artists, Morrison was starting out on a long journey into self-awareness, spirituality and mysticism that would dominate so many of his recordings for many years to come. He was now inspired and motivated by poetry, philosophy, the arts, the countryside and the great works of literature. Musically, his love of jazz, folk and soul would come to the forefront and he would develop a new style of vocal that often involved repetition of single refrains many times - “just a like a, just a like a, just a like a, just a like a, just a like a, like a ballerina...” or however many times he repeated it. It could, in my opinion, get irritating at times, but it was certainly unique and gave his vocals a real recognisability.

Lyrically, that good old chestnut, “streams of consciousness” always rears its head when Astral Weeks is discussed, and, it has to be said that a lot of the lyrics have no obvious meaning  or point of connection. They just express a series of feelings, images and characters. A good example is my personal favourite track, and one of Morrison’s finest of all time - the intriguing, perplexing Madame George. Just what was it all about? Does it really matter? It just has a great feel - slowly brooding, a wonderful jazz/soul backing and Morrison’s mystifying lyrics. Every bit of it is sensational. When Morrison first sings “down Cyprus Avenue..” it still sends tingles down the spine. I also love the percussion and flute fade out. Just eight minutes of soulful redemption. Incidentally, Marianne Faithfull did an absolutely stirring, evocative version too.

The album was recorded by jazz session musicians not previously known to Morrison, or familiar with his music.  They were in a studio and Morrison was in a booth with his acoustic guitar. Nevertheless it worked to a tee. The instrumentation is fantastic throughout. To this day, apparently, the identity of the flautist remains unknown.
               
The beautifully rhythmic acoustic flourishes of Astral Weeks kick things off and Morrison’s plaintive,soulful voice joins in, expressing lyrics about “slipstreams”, “viaducts” and “dreams”. A read a review which said at this point, Morrison was up there with Dylan. They were right. This is Morrison’s Blonde On Blonde, for sure. This was still 1968, remember. This was “pop” music as it hadn’t really previously existed. The song’s several minutes just wash over you as if you are lying in a warm bath.

Beside You starts with some beautiful crystal clear acoustic guitar and a cutting, slightly too-loud vocal from Morrison. It is one of his first overtly spiritual songs. The guitar, flute and the almost ad-hoc vocal intertwine most effectively.

The same applies to the mystical, swirling Sweet Thing with Morrison at his pastoral,  bucolic best, speaking of “gardens wet with rain” (an image he would revisit on 1986’s In The Garden). Over an insistent shuffling bass and percussion backing, Morrison and the musicians push the song onwards and upwards to a kind of creative nirvana. That voice and that fluttering flute and sweeping strings. One of his best songs of all time. All romantic positivity and sensitivity (that such a notoriously “difficult” man could be so tender, lyrically, has always fascinated me).

The melodic bass introduces us, with a lovely harpsichord refrain underpinning it, to the wonderful Cyprus Avenue. Morrison gets all nostalgic about a street from his youth and some stunning violin joins in. Yet another magnificent track. Morrison is in complete control here, despite being in another room.

What is strange is that on all the many Van Morrison compilations over the years, only Sweet Thing from this sensational album is ever included. Why not Astral WeeksCyprus Avenue or Madame George. The beauty of digital programming, of course, is that they can be added.

The Way That Young Lovers Do is a jaunty, brass-driven, jazzy short sharp piece of fun that many feel is incongruous in the context of the album. I disagree. It livens things up a little. Don’t worry. Madame George is coming. I remember hearing Robert Elms introducing it on radio once and he simply said “this is a mighty, mighty record”. He was right.  I can’t listen to it without getting all watery-eyed.  Those cymbals at the end and Morrison vocalising us out, on that train. Just heavenly.

Morrison repeats “in the back street” quite a bit on Madame George. Maybe there was something in his “Bruce Springsteen stole some of my lines” claim after all.


Ballerina seems almost “live”, as if they just improvised on the spot, which, apparently is something close to the truth. The beat remains ever insistent - acoustic rhythm, bass, percussion. Just intoxicating. It sounds great in the latest 2015 remaster. As indeed does all the album. Van sings as he did on It’s Too Late To Stop Now, in total control, yet sounding so spur of the moment. In some ways, parts of this are the best bits on the album. Slim Slow Slider is the most mournful song on the album, its repeated blues-style vocals tell of a girl’s tragic demise. It is, for me, the only song that does not have any uplifting, inspirational qualities. There is always that feeling of hope, of spiritual redemption in the other tracks. Not in this one. It comes to an abrupt end. Somehow I feel this magnificent piece of work should have faded out gracefully, not with a slamming of a door. Never mind though. It has been one hell of a journey.

PS - the extras include some “alternate takes”. The Madame George is enjoyable but I prefer the original. Ballerina, however, is excellent, with some big, booming saxophone parts. Slim Slow Slider is great too, bassier, I think, with some nice clarinet(?).



Moondance (1970)


And It Stoned Me/Moondance/Crazy Love/Caravan/Into The Mystic/Come Running/These Dreams Of You/Brand New Day/Everyone/Glad Tidings

"Every time we'd drive past Dylan's house ... Van would just stare wistfully out the window at the gravel road leading to Dylan's place. He thought Dylan was the only contemporary worthy of his attention" - Janet Planet            

After the phenomenal, unique album that was 1968’s Astral Weeks Van Morrison was back two years later in early 1970 with this seminal album of Celtic soul and jazzy laid-back rock. Later that year, in November, came the introduction to horn-driven Celtic soul that was His Band And The Street Choir, an album that I have always thought came before Moondance, It didn’t, but somehow sounds as if it should have, such is the rawness of that album in comparison to Moondance’s slick professional ambience.

Moondance is a marvellous album. Not a duff track on it. Seriously. It is packed full of energy, soul, atmosphere, vitality and excellent musicianship from beginning to end. This 2013 remaster is truly outstanding. As good a reproduction as I have ever heard it - balanced, warm, crystal clear and punchy.

It begins with the so very Irish And It Stoned Me, a mid-paced, folky but soulful slice of Celtic majesty that sees Van musing about the county fair, the rain coming down and fishing poles. Just entrancing stuff. - Van's voice, the sumptuous horns, the piano. All of it. Simply marvellous.



Then comes Moondance, known by many these days. Very jazzy and open to many different jazz interpretations. It has an infectious feel to it. Irresistibly rhythmic. The bass is beautiful on this remaster, the acoustic guitar so clear. Just such a joy to listen to. Then there is Crazy Love - what a beautiful piece of pure soul. Once again, fantastic instrumentation. Big, full bass again and Van's voice is lovely. It was the first track I ever heard from this album, back in the late seventies. It was in a record shop in London’s Leicester Square. I asked them who it was (I knew only Brown Eyed Girl at the time. I was still a teenager). I was hooked on Van from that moment on. It is short, but beautifully created song with Morrison’s voice on top form. Since Astral Weeks he has developed some deeper tones to it. There were just a few times on that album when it grated just a tiny bit. Not on here.


Caravan is a copper-bottomed Morrison classic. Full of gypsy imagery about a bucolic travelling life on the road and delivered in that unique Celtic soul style that Morrison was making his own. It is impeccable from beginning to end. That bit around 2.32 when Van says "the caravan is painted red and white" and then a bit later when he tells us to "turn up your radio". And then the horns kick in. If that is not musical perfection I don't know what is. Into The Mystic is possibly even better. An understated, beautiful bass intro. Then into a “stream of consciousness” gentle and captivating Celtic soul song, complete with an ethereal mystical (as the title would suggest) atmosphere and foghorn sound effects - "when that foghorn blows". Van singing how he wants to "rock your gypsy soul". Just perfection. Van Morrison has had a long career, but there have been fewer better songs, in many ways, than some of those on this album. Particularly the two just mentioned. It certainly was too late to stop now. The “Celtic soul swing” thing kicks in for the next two jauntily upbeat numbers - Come Running and These Dreams Of You. While not emotional, evocative soul anthems, they are both incredibly catchy, strident and punchy numbers. The former is lively and joyous. Celebratory. The latter one of Morrison's best soul numbers. Great horns. Van really had the knack for a vibrant tune on this album. No extended reflective workouts as on many other albums. It is his most accessible, dare I say commercial album. Just listening to it again is such a pleasure.

 

Brand New Day. Oh my. One of my favourite Van Morrison songs. A wonderful gospel soul sound. Great verses building up to that killer chorus with its energising, uplifting effect whenever you hear it. To say it is life affirming is actually a bit of an understatement. Lovely piano underpinning it, as indeed on a lot of the album. I am running out of superlatives for this album and just seem to be repeating myself. Everyone has some melodic, almost Elizabethan-style swirling keyboards to introduce what is an energetic and exhilarating song. Glad Tidings ends things hopefully and  soulfully and, once again, in an upbeat manner. What a bass line to begin with. Another of my favourites. This has been a very positive, refreshing album. Even the more soulful songs are certainly not mournful. There is a lot of joie de vivre on the album. It never fails to lift the spirits.

Non-album music from the sessions of the time are the rarity I Shall Sing - an upbeat, enthusiastic slightly Caribbean-sounding number that was impressively covered by reggae artists Toots & The Maytals on their 1976 album Reggae Got Soul and an outtake cover of Jimmy Cox's 1923 blues Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out. It is a good outtake, however, with a fine vocal from Morrison and a jazz/blues piano backing.



His Band And The Street Choir (1970)


Domino/Crazy Face/Give Me A Kiss/I've Been Working/Call Me Up In Dreamland/I'll Be Your Lover Too/Blue Money/Virgo Clowns/Gypsy Queen/Sweet Jannie/If I Ever Needed Someone/Street Choir  

"People think you're a hippie because of the long hair and beard. ... I'd bought the kaftan in Woodstock, and that's what people were wearing"   - Van Morrison          

After the sweet Celtic soul of the marvellous Moondance album, Van Morrison continued the Celtic Soul Swing even more on this follow-up album. It is a good album, but certainly not the equal of the peerless Moondance. It sounds more raw, more obviously horn-dominated, without quite the clarity of sound, versatility of musicianship or diversification into soul and jazz of its predecessor. Furthermore, even on this 2013 remaster, the sound is definitely not as crystal clear as on Moondance. It never has been, unfortunately. This is by far the best remaster of it so far but it still has a slightly muffled sound in comparison. However, it is far superior to previous, frustrating remasters of it.

                                     
Domino is a vibrant, kicking horn-driven and punchy slice of Celtic soul to start off, with some catchy hooks, while Crazy Face is a wonderful piece of soul, with a great saxophone solo and an ambience that would not have been out of place on Moondance. A similar soul feel to Crazy Love. There is a spontaneous, almost live feel to Van’s vocal delivery on this track. This album is more bluesy than the previous one - the jazzy, vigorous blues of Give Me A Kiss is a good example. Rock ’n’ roll doo-wop backing vocals and a rocking saxophone are in there as well. A high-spirited pleasure to listen to. The blues feeling is much, much deeper on one of my favourites, the rocking, gritty I've Been Working. This is a grinding, growling industrial blues rocker. The bass on here is big and powerful and the bit where Van sings “woman, woman, woman, woman…” and the horns come blasting in is marvellous. This is one of the best tracks on the album. Almost funky in places too.

Call Me Up In Dreamland has more than a hint of Sam Cooke’s Havin’ A Party in its lively chorus. I'll Be Your Lover Now does have a bit of recording hiss on it but it has a slow soul stateliness and something of a ”live” feel. The acoustic guitars are so sharp they almost gave my ears a paper cut. Blue Money is a sixties sounding bluesy rocking groove. It sounds a bit like something Georgie Fame would have done a few years earlier. It never really gets there, however. Something just a little half-baked about it. Like a studio demo that should have been left there. Virgo Clowns is better, “let your laughter fill the room” sings Van, again sounding very ad hoc. A sharp, acoustic backing and a bit of an Astral Weeks feel pervades the track.

Gypsy Queen is just sumptuous. The “you know it’s alright” refrain reminds me of something else, although I can’t put my finger on it. Something by Bruce Springsteen, I think. Superb, powerful horns and an excellent Morrison vocal where he just owns the band. Sweet Jannie has Van revisiting the blues again for a standard upbeat blues rocker. If I Ever Needed Someone is a soulful, slow-paced, brassy search for spiritual satisfaction, something Van would indulge in many times over the years. Street Choir has a gospelly feel with some strident backing vocals and more potent horns. Overall, it is not quite up to Moondance but it is a highly enjoyable upbeat, brassy soul album.

As regards the title of the album, it certainly is a clunker. Wordy and clumsy. However, when I was first properly getting into Van in the early 1980s, - checking out his back catalogue - it was the album's name which caught my eye - something seemingly credible about the name "street choir" I guess. Sounded sort of Springsteen-ish, I thought at the time.

Tupelo Honey (1971)


Wild Night/Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball)/Old, Old Woodstock/Starting A New Life/You're My Woman/Tupelo Honey/I Wanna Roo You/When The Evening Sun Goes Down/Moonshine Whiskey 

"When I went to the West Coast these people weren't that available so I had to virtually put a completely new band together overnight to do 'Tupelo Honey'. So it was a very tough period. I didn't want to change my band but if I wanted to get into the studio I had to ring up and get somebody. That was the predicament I was in" - Van Morrison           
                        
After two comparatively vibrant, soulful, brassy albums, Van Morrison caught the zeitgeist post-Woodstock and, like Bob Dylan, relocated to a farm to live a tranquil life far from the madding crowd. This is very much reflected in the material on this album, from 1971, although, ironically, the actual recording of it took place in California after Morrison's wife, Janet Planet, had convinced him to move there. He then had to get a new band set up, and this led to a bit of tension in the recording process. This was according to Morrison, but if there was fraughtness, you would never have known from the album's smooth, bucolic and relaxed vibe.

Wild Night sounds like it is straight off 1970’s Street Choir - a Celtic soul, upbeat, bass intro and some strident horn riffs just like Domino which opened that previous album. However, this would prove to be one of the only pure pieces of Celtic soul on this album. It was an album in which Morrison was to go bluesy bucolic, like Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. That whole laid-back country feel was the thing of the day. However, Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball), despite its county rock twangy guitar riffs and double-time waltzy beat still has some Celtic flute, lively “la-la-la” backing vocals and a catchy hook. After which, though, it gets decidedly different in tone.

Old, Old Woodstock is laid-back, tender and quite beautiful. Lovely gentle bass line on it. It is an appealing slice of slow-paced soul/bluesy rock. Far more reflective and low-key than anything on the previous album. Van ruminates on his peaceful, rustic life with his woman and child on the farm. He sounds a man very much at one with himself. Bob Dylan would do similar on the following year's New Morning. He also lived in the same part of the USA.

 

It has a lovely piano bit in the middle too. Even on a comparatively understated track like this, however, Morrison still owns the track, his vocals rising confidently above the impeccable backing.

Starting A New Life is a cornerstone for the themes on the album. All country harmonica and acoustic guitar it celebrates exactly what the title says. It is nice and peaceful but it doesn’t hit you between the eyes, but then that was presumably not the intention of this album.

You're My Woman is a solid, potent bluesy rock ballad in praise of Van’s woman - the enigmatic Janet Planet. There is some excellent saxophone at the track’s climax. Some critics have had a problem with Morrison’s supposedly macho approach to “his woman”. Personally, I don’t. It was a song of its time. It was a blues song. Nothing to get too irked about. Because there are no copper-bottomed Morrison classics on this album (apart from the title track), it is easy to overlook it in comparison with Moondance or St. Dominic’s Preview, which does it a bit of a disservice. There is some good material on here.

Now, let’s get to Tupelo Honey. Simply in my top five Van Morrison songs of all time. Big, dramatic, romantic, soulful. It has the lot. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey, she’s an angel of the first degree…”. Does it get much better? Maybe - try “men with insight, men in granite….”. This magnificent, moving, inspirational track is packed full of classic moments. Jack Schroer’s saxophone against the ring guitar chords for one. The twin acoustic solos in the middle part. Just blooming beautiful. Then Van returns - “you can’t stop us on the road to freedom…” Oh my, you grumpy old deity. You lift my soul at times.

Country pleasures return with the Dylanesque (Self Portrait era) and acoustic I Wanna Roo YouWhen The Evening Sun Goes Down is even more country rock-ish, sounding just like ThBandLeon Russell and early Elton John. It has echoes of the country material Morrison would record years later on Pay The Devil. In the past I have tended to dismiss these last few tracks, being so blown away by the title track, but listening to them again reveals hidden joys.

Moonshine Whiskey's pedal steel guitar and catchy refrain continues the straw-bale hoedown feel, although Van gets all soulful in the middle when he serenades his “Texas sweetheart, all the way from Arkansas…”. Even in this jaunty country number he gets some classic Celtic soul Morrison-isms into it.

This is an often underrated Van Morrison album. Yes, it is no Astral Weeks or Moondance but it is worthy of more than just the occasional listen. I am glad I dug it out again.

PS - the alternative version of Wild Night included on the remaster is excellent. You also get Van's lively take on the gospel of Down By The Riverside.



Saint Dominic's Preview (1972)


Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)/Gypsy/I Will Be There/Listen To The Lion/Saint Dominic's Preview/Redwood Tree/Almost Independence Day

"The album was kind of rushed because of studio time and things like that. But I thought it was a good shot, that album. There were a lot of good songs on it. 'St. Dominic's Preview' was more into where I'm at, more into what I was doing"   - Van Morrison     

This, Van Morrison’s sixth studio album (or the fifth if you don’t count Blowin’ Your Mind) is a mixture of the swinging, jaunty, horn-driven and folky Celtic soul of Moondance and Street Choir and of the lengthy, extended, spiritual material that would characterise much of his later work. Two of the tracks are very long and employ the almost ad hoc “stream of consciousness” lyrics that Morrison would use on later albums like Common One. The other tracks are lively and almost poppy at times, so it is an intriguing mix of an album.
                        
It starts with the soul/pop of Jackie Wilson Said with its infectious and catchy “da-da-da-da-dah” opening refrain. It almost sounds too light and airy for most of the rest of the album. Gypsy is a song that returns to common Morrison ground of celebrating nature’s beauty, over a jazzy upbeat rock /folk backing, with the trademark horns as well. I Will Be There is a piano-led, jazzy, Ray Charles-inspired upbeat blues. It also contains an excellent Jack Schroer saxophone solo.

 

Listen To The Lion is a beautifully bass-led, slow-paced reflective eleven minute workout that has Morrison almost ad-libbing his vocals - sometimes singing, sometimes growling, shouting, using the old blues repetition technique, then some jazz scat,  and finally roaring like a lion at times. In many ways, it is a bit of a difficult listen, but in other ways it is a remarkable track. From about half way through, there are not really too many words, apart from “listen to the lion, inside of me”, and some bits about "sailing to Denmark". I love the first seven or eight minutes, but to be honest, it has never been one of my favourites of his, finding it far too long and at times a little irritating in Van’s delivery. However, I am not blind to its good points. The bass lines are superb as is the general atmosphere. It is played immaculately and just keeps up the never-ending intensity. Actually, you know, listening to it again, I am feeling far more inclined to it. Maybe therein lies its strength. I have found my own inner lion.

On to my favourite track, though. Saint Dominic's Preview is a mix of all sorts of things. It is lengthy, but soulful, varied and never one-dimensional. There are lyrical references to Van’s Belfast childhood, Edith PiafSan FranciscoHank Williams, his teenage days, his time cleaning windows, even the “Safeway Supermarket”. There are mentions of his new-found fame - “the record company has paid out for the wine”. All over a lively, addictive Celtic soul-style beat. It has a wonderful instrumental backing build up, just like Listen To The Lion, but far more lyrical inspiration. The best track on the album, for me. Also, one of Van Morrison's best ever. Incidentally, the lyric "flags and emblems" was used as an album title by Northern Irish punk band Stiff Little FingersRedwood Tree is my next choice. It is a captivating and upbeat song celebrating Morrison’s new life in California, being at one with nature and just enjoying life in general. Melodic, uplifting and soulful, it is one of Morrison’s most hopeful, positive and carefree songs. One of his great Celtic Soul numbers.


Almost Independence Day is the other stream of consciousness long number. It is said to be, by some, a sequel to 1968’s monumental Madame George. Not for me it isn’t. It doesn’t come remotely close. It has the sound of an extended studio jam, experimenting with Moog synthesiser foghorn sounds and the like. It just doesn’t quite work as far as I’m concerned. The crystal clear acoustic guitar is impressive, the bass is once again superb and Morrison lends "live" vocal feeling to it, but after about six or seven of its ten minutes, I begin to tire of it., just a little. I read somewhere of a critic saying that the contemporarily-recorded Wonderful Remark should have taken its place. I have to say I agree. One Listen To The Lion is enough. I much prefer Lion of the two extended tracks. The album, therefore, as a whole, is a bit of an odd one, as four of the tracks are quite short and two are so rambling and long so it doesn't have either the soulful punchiness of His Band And The Street Choir or the deliberately long, spiritual feeling of Common One. All that said, these are just personal, somewhat superficial opinions. The album is still up there in Morrison's top ten.



Hard Nose The Highway (1973)


Snow In San Anselmo/Warm Love/Hard Nose The Highway/Wild Children/The Great Deception/Bein' Green/Autumn Song/Purple Heather 

"As a concept for the album, I was just trying to establish how hard it was to do what I do. Plus there were some lighter things on the other side of it. One side has a kind of hard feeling while the other is soft"   - Van Morrison        

1973’s Hard Nose The Highway was very much an album of transition for Van Morrison. It was the one where the Celtic soul started to give way to diversified, spiritually-motivated material that would result in low-key, ethereal, quietly atmospheric albums like 1974’s Veedon Fleece. This album was the stepping point to that one.
                  
The opener, Snow In San Anselmo begins with some choral vocals before Morrison’s voice arrives - considerably high-pitched now in comparison to the bluesy growl or upbeat soulful tone of the previous few albums. The pace of the music has slowed down too. It is still impeccably played as always - lovely bass, keyboards and guitar. This is now the kind of laid back soul/rock that Morrison would record for many more years. There is a strange, rather incongruous upbeat jazzy part in the middle, however, before the gentle, relaxing groove returns. The choral backing is somewhat superfluous too, the song would be better without it, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the sound quality, by the way, is truly superb.

 

Warm Love is an entrancing romantic number with some lovely flute backing and a tender vocal from Morrison. Hard Nose The Highway is one of those typical brassy soulful tracks but not as upbeat as on previous albums. Morrison’s soul is now much slower in pace, still brass-dominated, but nowhere near as flighty. When Van goes into the “further on up the road” voice part, it sounds almost like a live recording, the type of which would appear on the It’s Too Late To Stop Now album. Wild Children is a lovely, sensitive piano-led ballad about the generation of his, born in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Van gets all emotional about Tennessee Williams, Rod Steiger, James Dean, Marlon Brando, rivers and streams. Bucolic and nostalgic for “the days before rock ’n’ roll” -  a theme he would return to many times over the years. This was one of his first of that type of song. Beautiful it is too. A warm, comforting bass sound and jazzy guitar on it. Van Morrison is capable of some of the most observant, sensitive lyrics you will hear put to music. The Great Depression ploughs a similar furrow, musically and lyrically it expresses some of the cynicism towards the duplicitous things “they” do to him that he would express many more times over the years.


Bein' Green is a song from the children’s TV programme Sesame Street and was sung by future muppet, Kermit The Frog. Morrison turns it into a Ray Charles-style soul ballad, most convincingly. Autumn Song is a beautiful, extended, ten minute slice of Morrison laid-back jazz rock. Some critics are dissatisfied with this song. I disagree. It has an affecting ambience and its musicianship is excellent. It just sort of washes over you like a warm bath. Ideal for an early autumn evening. Maybe it should have ended two minutes before it did, but I can live with that. It is worth thinking upon that, amongst the seriously great and diverse albums released in 1973, this is one of those rarely mentioned, yet it is one of the most ahead of its time, both musically and lyrically.

The closer is a cover of the traditional Caledonian air, Purple Heather given the orchestrated Morrison treatment. Some great violin on this track and some ad hoc style scat vocals.

This proved to be a little-mentioned but important album in the musical and thematic development of Van Morrison as an artist. Many future albums would follow its lead.



Veedon Fleece (1974)


Fair Play/Linden Arden Stole The Highlights/Who Was That Masked Man/Streets Of Arklow/You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River/Bulbs/Cul De Sac/Comfort You/Come Here My Love/Country Fair

"And as we walked through the streets of Arklow, oh the colours of the day warm, and our heads were filled with poetry, in the morning coming onto dawn"             
This was Van Morrison's most Irish roots-influenced album thus far in his recording career. By now living in San Francisco, and seemingly feeling wistful about Ireland, he re-discovers his Celtic soul and blends it with the stream of consciousness lyrical style that so dominated his late 60s/early 70s output.
                                                        
This sense of homesickness is particularly apparent on tracks like the mysterious, evocative Streets Of Arklow and the extended, inscrutable You Don’t Pull No Punches. This is a track that was a forerunner to the existential material found on 1980's Common One. Morrison sings of "William Blake and the Sisters of Mercy looking for the Veedon Fleece..." over a shuffling, flute-enhanced jazzy improvised backing.

Morrison is often sentimental about his homeland and also ruminates upon emigration on several occasions. He had been away, in effect, since 1967, remember. These are very Irish songs. Mysterious, mystical and beguiling. The short Who Was That Masked Man? is in a similar mode, its meaning unclear and somewhat perplexing.


Personal favourites are the enigmatic Linden Arden Stole The Highlights - a track beloved of Elvis Costello - and the totally delightful, upbeat Bulbs. Also the somewhat ponderous but very appealing Fair Play, with its very Irish turn of phrase. Apparently Morrison got the lyric from an Irish friend who was always saying “fair play to you”. Check out that lovely deep bass line and its interplay with the acoustic guitar and tinkling "waterfall" piano notes.

Cul-De-Sac is a slow, soulful but dramatic Morrison classic too, rarely mentioned in any “best of” lists. David Bowie was seen as a great innovator when he recorded white soul like this a year later on Young Americans. Morrison was leading the way here, unnoticed by many. Comfort You is lovely, a bit of a throwback to the romantic, bucolic feeling of 1972's Tupelo Honey album. It features some sumptuous bass/cymbals and strings. It is another little-mentioned gem of a song. Come Here My Love is a slow, contemplative acoustic melancholic lament that also has a feeling of hope as Morrison want his love to help him fly higher, "enraptured by the sights and sounds...". It is only a couple of minutes long, but it confirms Morrison to be very much at one with nature, which is always a reassuring thing.


County Fair is a haunting, meditative and ethereal folky closer to the album that features some excellent flute. Morrison often used flute in his backing, to great effect, as he did earlier on the album on You Don't Pull No Punches.

In comparison to the more soulful albums in MooondanceHis Band and St. Dominic’s Preview this album is rather more like Hard Nose The Highway in its being far closer to Astral Weeks than any of the upbeat, vibrant, Celtic soul albums that came after that stunning debut. It is a reflective album, that is for sure, and thoroughly beautiful in so many ways.

Morrison himself has pretty much disowned the material on here, which is a shame as it is an album that has a definite “feel” to it - mid evening and thoughtful. as I mentioned earlier, tracks from here rarely appear on “best of” compilations. I find it always worth dipping into every now and again. The sound is a bit hissy at times, but it doesn’t seem to matter, really. It is probably quite a credible thing if asked to name your favourite Van Morrison album to say Veedon Fleece.



It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974)


This is the original live double album release that has captivated fans for years. It is actually a compilation of tracks from three shows - from The Troubadour in Los Angeles, from Santa Monica and from London's Rainbow Theatre. You would never have known, as it plays like one full concert, which gives it undoubted plus points. It is up there with the true contenders for the "greatest live album of all time".

Van is in total control of his large, brass-dominated band, instinctively and intuitively so, from beginning to end. The opener is an old blues cover given the full horn-driven Celtic Soul treatment and Warm Love gets the full brass enhancement. The sound on the remastered CD is just so damn good, it takes your breath away. Into The Mystic is one of those seemingly effortless pieces that Van just owns. When he sings "I wanna rock your gypsy soul" and the band kick in, it is just one of those moments. Morrison utilises two violinists and a viola player on these track and their contribution is wonderful, as is that on the bass of Bill Attwood and Jack Schroer on saxophone. It is during this period that Morrison really developed his on stage Celtic soul improvisation, his "backstreet jelly roll" that would so positively characterise his stagecraft from now on. He was also, by his own admittance, really discovering a love of playing live. Just listen to the jaunty These Dreams Of You for conclusive proof of that. The saxophones are superb on this track also. I Believe To My Soul is a bluesy Ray Charles number given a suitably bluesy, but sumptuously brassy overhaul.

I've Been Working is a lively, almost funky at times, workout, with that great "woman, woman, woman..." vocal riff. The upbeat blues of Help Me rocks along. Morrison can trot out these numbers in his sleep. Wild Children sees him all Celtically nostalgic and reflective. It is a beautifully laid-back, soulful number with a delicious piano break in the middle. As Domino kicks in with is uplifting horn riff and Van's great vocal I realise just what a consistently superb album this is and that there is little point dissecting track after track. No need. They are all great. My goodness, just put I Just Want To Make Love To You on, right now.

Special mention has to go out to the conclusion, however - Caravan is one of the best live cuts I have heard by anyone, let alone Van Morrison. The violin solo in it is just magnificent and life-affirming. Live music simply doesn't get much better than this. Unbelievably highly recommended.

TRANSITION (1977-1987)



A Period Of Transition (1977)


You Gotta Make It Through The World/It Fills You Up/The Eternal Kansas City/Joyous Sound/Flamingoes Fly/Heavy Connection/Cold Wind In August  

"'The Eternal Kansas City' was the song that Van got the whole album hooked up around. It was a real deep thing for him to focus on. It goes from a real ethereal voice sound to a jazz introduction and then into a kind of chunky R&B"   - Dr. John  

Van Morrison, after rediscovering his Irishness on 1974’s Veedon Fleece had toured extensively, playing some iconic shows and then got “writer’s block” for a while. In the meantime, punk had exploded all over the music scene in 1976-77 and established artists were prime targets for the scorn of punk’s young guns. Morrison escaped, under the radar, somehow. He continued to release decidedly un-punk recordings throughout the whole period, seemingly oblivious. He had been hanging out with funk/soul group The Crusaders, and there were definite influences on this, his “great comeback” album. Its title, though, gives it away. It definitely was a “period of transition”. The album remains a slightly half-baked, little-mentioned one. Let’s try to get something positive from it, however. To be fair, it is pretty easy to do that.

  

You Gotta Make It Through The World has Van Morrison going funky with an extended funk guitar intro and the undoubted influence of New Orleans funker Dr. John, who Morrison had been hanging out with and enlisted as producer for this album. It is a solid but unspectacular track, with repetitive, dull lyrics. Sure, it had a great groove, an infectious bass line and is a pleasant listen, with great sound quality, but one is left with the feeling that the great mystic, the great Celtic soulster was better than this. Van Morrison was now producing average white funk workouts. It Fills You Up was a slow burning, horn-driven soul blues number with Morrison’s voice strong and dominant. There is none of the spiritual yearning that had appeared on Veedon Fleece or any of the inspired melodic soul of Moondance or St. Dominic’s Preview. There was not an extended “stream of consciousness” search like Listen To The Lion either. Considering Van had been in the wilderness for three years, it seems as if this wasn’t quite the great comeback that it had intended to be.

The Eternal Kansas City starts with some choral backing vocals fading in, in the style of Bob Dylan’s All The Tired Horses, but eventually Van kicks in and it becomes an enjoyable, melodic soul and jazz romp that is better than many say. Similarly, Joyous Sunset has a vibrant, energetic jazz soul groove and some lively saxophone. Morrison would continue to turn material like this out for years. It is not much different in essence to Hey Mr DJ or Precious Time, which were critically acclaimed from albums many years later.

Flamingoes Fly has a sumptuous brass backing and a confident vocal from an. It would not have sounded out of place on 1979’s Into The Music. It has that semi-funky Cleaning Windows guitar sound. Much of the musical themes introduced on this album would continue to be used by Morrison for years afterwards. This was almost seeing the musical tone for nearly forty years of music. Heavy Connection was another horn-driven, “la-la-la” hooky laid-back but potent piece of swing soul. Some good lyrics and a hint to the past in its soul feel. Would have been ok on Street Choir. It has an excellent saxophone solo in it.

Cold Wind In August is redolent of 1973’s Hard Nose The Highway album and ends the all too short album (seven tracks and 33 minutes) on a gospelly high note. All female backing vocals and rising horns. More sumptuous saxophone to be found here. Morrison’s “pushing through September in the rain” is inspired. My goodness, this is a superb track. He always comes up with at least one of those inspirational moments on every album. You can rely on that.

You know, listening to it again, this little-mentioned album is not too bad at all. It is just not quite a work of genius.



Wavelength (1978)


Kingdom Hall/Checkin' It Out/Natalia/Venice USA/Lifetimes/Wavelength/Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession/Hungry For Your Love/Take It Where You Find It   

"Morrison has made two, maybe three albums that rank high among the finest of all rock 'n' roll. 'Wavelength' is good enough to stand close by Morrison's best work, a record of sinuous, sensuous magic. The man just can't be beat"   - Time Magazine           
After what some critics, (not myself I may add), thought was a frustrating album in 1977’s A Period Of TransitionVan Morrison continued to release material that completely ignored any influence whatsoever from punk and new wave, whose fires were burning all around. This is a lively, melodic and punchy soulful album that harks back in some ways to Street Choir and the Celtic soul experience of the early seventies. This time, it had a slicker, technologically superior production and a smoother style of instrumentation, some of the reliance on horns taken over by sweeping strings, tinkling E. St Band-style piano and multiple female backing vocalists  (as used by Bob Dylan on Street Legal in the same year, and indeed by Bob Marley & The Wailers). Personally, this has always been a somewhat overlooked album by myself. I much prefer the following year’s Into The Music, but there is some good material on here all the same, that I need to give more attention to.

Kingdom Hall is a vibrant, gospelly and catchy opener full of the afore-mentioned characteristics. It references the Jehovah’s Witness Hall he remembered from his childhood in Belfast. It starts the album with a breath of fresh air. You eel it is going to be a good one.

Checkin' It Out is what would now prove to be typical Van Morrison soul -a strong, emotive, instinctive vocal, potent horns, swirling organ riffs and a semi-funky lilting guitar. This is another instantly appealing song. Whatever one’s views about the previous album, and mine are more positive than negative, this is by far the more accessible and commercial album. There is a point at the end of this track when Morrison sings “almost live”, just as he would in a Iive concert. Leading the band in the direction he wants to go. Natalia has a rich, throbbing bass line and a laid-back easy-listening soulful ambience. It has to be said that the sound quality on this album is the finest yet in his career. The raw power of those Celtic soul years has been now honed, via some more spiritual albums in the mid seventies to this impeccable margining of both soul and spirituality. In many ways, Morrison’s recordings would stay in this fashion, to a greater or lesser extent, for the rest of his career to date.

Venice USA (pictured) has a funky, staccato guitar riff and some soulful organ breaks and another effortlessly nonchalant vocal. The “dum de dum dum” chorus refrain is a little off-putting but it is initially followed by an accordion-sounding keyboard solo and a general upbeat good time feel that pervades throughout the song. Sometimes, for one so naturally grumpy, Van Morrison can sing with such joy. It is quite remarkable. There is something bright and summery about the whole of this album. Lifetimes is a gentle, mid-paced piece of soul rock that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Hard Nose The Highway, 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose or indeed on Enlightenment from 1990. Some attractive Elizabethan-style keyboards at the end of it.

Wavelength starts with a high-pitched Astral Weeks -style vocal over a plaintive organ and piano before a metronomic drum kicks in, a disco-style synthesiser and some guitar riffage. Its double handclap is, I am sure, where Bob Geldof got the idea from to use them in The Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays the following year. It really rocks and cooks, this song. Soulful “doo-doo” backing vocals and a captivating lively beat throughout. The title is one of the first of many homages Morrison would pay to the radio he loved listening to as a teenager. Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession is a stately and confident, wonderful slow burning slice of Morrison soul. It was a huge thumping, bassy dignified beat and a killer vocal, with that indescribable emotion that Morrison injects into songs like this. It segues seamlessly into Beautiful Obsession as Van growls and improvises until the end of the song. “Let the cowboy ride” he exhorts in one of those marvellous endings of his. The soully, laid-back, effortless Hungry For Your Love seems familiar to many of his songs over the years. It has airs of the next track that help in leading up to that monster of a song.

Take It Where You Find It is just glorious. Majestic. Magnificent. Whatever other superlatives you want to throw its way. The intro alone sends shivers down my spine. The rolling drumbeats, the keyboards, the crystal clear acoustic guitars, Van’s voice. Yes, Van’s voice. Heavenly. The song divides into roughly three parts. The part where it suddenly quietens down two thirds of the way through (5.04), Van quietly growls “change come over” in his Belfast brogue and the backing vocalists oh so sweetly repeat the same “change come over” line brings tears to my eyes. Seriously. One of my favourite moments in music. Ever. Period.

I have nothing more to say after that. Sublime. I’m going to walk down the street until I see my shining light…..



Into The Music (1979)


Bright Side Of The Road/Full Force Gale/Steppin' Out Queen/Troubadours/Rolling Hills/You Make Me Feel So Free/Angelou/And The Healing Has Begun/It's All In The Game/You Know What They're Writing About 

"'Into the Music' was about the first album where I felt, I'm starting here...the 'Wavelength' thing, I didn't really feel that was me. That's when I got back into it. That's why I called it 'Into the Music'"  - Van Morrison

This was one of Van Morrison’s most accessible and popular albums. Oblivious to the fires of punk burning all around him, Morrison produced an album that is probably closest to his It’s Too Late To Stop Now Celtic Soul Orchestra ideal from 1974, but maybe without quite so much reliance on brass backing. It features lots of catchy, lilting tunes, and plenty of Gaelic musical airs and inflections. It is a sort of rocky Irish blues. Notably, it is also more acoustic and folky than the previous album, Wavelength, which was dominated by its punchy brass sections. 

Apparently Morrison would walk through fields in the Costwolds, where he was living at the time, acoustic guitar in hand, composing songs as he walked. He looks back on the album positively (something that not all of his albums receive) viewing it as the point "when I got back into it - that's why I called it "Into The Music...". It is clearly a happy, vibrant album, full of lively, upbeat songs.

This is also one of his most “singalong” albums, exemplified by the now perennial favourite On The Bright Side Of The Road that gets them all off their feet at live gigs. Full Force Gale has a similarly irresistible hook, while You Make Me Feel So Free is a folky, piano-driven melodious piece of vibrant summery beauty. The latter is a personal Morrison favourite of mine. Rolling Hills is clearly one of the rootsy, violin-backed Irish numbers but with religious overtones as well, with lyrics about reading his Bible. It does contain a supremely mumbling, gruff-sounding vocal from Morrison, which is a bit at odds with much of the rest of the album.

Some of the spiritual themes from 1974's Veedon Fleece found their way in to this album. "Among the rolling hills, I'll live my life in Him..." he proclaimed on Rolling Hills, being overtly Christian for one of the first times, and "Full Force Gale" saw him "lifted up by the Lord...".

The jaunty Stepping Out Queen the Irish, folky Troubadours and the slow, soulful Angelou are just as intoxicating, but, for me, the album’s masterpiece is When The Healing Has Begun, an eight minute slab of majestic Morrison slow burning but passionate Celtic soul. Great verses abound about “putting on red dresses” and “wearing easter bonnets and all the rest” while Morrison growls “I want to make love to you - yes, yes, yes!”. There is a point a few minutes in, when he loses himself and, between verses, starts whooping with sheer joy and you think “blimey, the old bugger is actually enjoying himself”. Near the end there is a wonderful spoken bit before it builds to a monumental climax. Magnificent. The "backstreet jellyroll" references often subsequently used by Morrison began here. He also referenced Muddy Waters, returning home from a gig and making music with a violin and two guitars. He is addressing all of his muses at once - musicians, lovers, musical instruments and nature itself. 

It's All In The Game/You Know What They're Writing About was a reflective, verging on streams of consciousness ending to one of Morrison's best albums. It was spiritual, it was cheerful, it was sad, it was soulful. There were many different ambiences on this album, which was rare, as they usually ploughed one distinct furrow.



Common One (1980)


Haunts Of Ancient Peace/Summertime In England/Satisfied/Wild Honey/Spirit/When Heart Is Open  

"'Summertime In England' was actually a part of a poem I was writing and the poem and the song sort of merged" - Van Morrison            

This album was about as far removed from a conventional “rock” album as it was possible to be - utterly uncommercial and outside the pop mainstream. Seemingly oblivious to contemporary music trends, Morrison once again delves into his old favourite - that stream of consciousness, together with spirituality and the quest for peace and enlightenment. Morrison describes this as his favourite of his many works. One could even say he attains a state of grace within it. 

Musically, instead of the more familiar Morrison rhythm and blues, we get jazz stylings, soulful horns and Pee Wee Ellis’s ubiquitous saxophone. The sound quality on this remaster (somewhat difficult to get hold of at the moment), is simply superb.

It only contained six tracks, and lasted nearly an hour. Many critics at the time found either dull or pretentious, or both. Richard S. Ginell, writing on the Allmusic website has since re-assessed it in a way that I wholly agree with - 

"....No wonder the rock critics of the time didn't get it; this is music outside the pop mainstream, and even Morrison's own earlier musical territory. But it retains its trancelike power to this day...."

Listening to this “al fresco” on an early summer’s morning can be a delight. Spirit does just what its title suggests - it lifts the spirits, particularly when the horns kick in and blend with Morrison’s gruff but soulful voice. Summertime In England is a fifteen minute journey that sees Morrison imagining poets Wordsworth and Coleridge “smoking up in Kendal” in the Lake District (pictured), as well as William Blake and T.S. Eliot, while musing on Avalon and the Church of St John, amongst other things. Some would say it is indulgent, and indeed it is lengthy, but somehow it is never tiresome. Morrison is just in the spiritual groove and you just go with it. It is actually quite a shuffling rhythmic track. Listen to that addictive drum, guitar and organ intro. Just wonderful.

The laid-back, melodic Wild Honey finds Morrison at his bucolic best, celebrating nature and “where the hillside rolls down to the sea”. When Heart Is Open , another fifteen minute opus, has him asking that someone “hand me down my big boots”. It is far more slow-paced and reflective than the (comparatively) livelier Summertime In England, having similarities with Almost Independence Day from the St. Dominic's Preview album from 1972.  It remains at the same tranquil pace throughout, Van occasionally rousing himself for the "big boots" request, but otherwise it is sleepy and soothing.

Satisfied is a gentle, organ-based, catchy soulful piece that sticks in your head despite its peaceful melody and the opener, Haunts Of Ancient Peace is typically ethereal. Spiritual images abound in pretty much every song. Particularly in this slow-paced, dreamy, reflective, almost solemn start to the album. The saxophone on this track is beautiful, as are the backing vocals. This is sublime music. The album should really be assessed as a complete one-off, not as part of any era. It was/is timeless.

This was Van Morrison’s finest attempt to make truly holy music. He succeeded. Despite what so many have said, he really did. 



Beautiful Vision (1982)


Celtic Ray/Northern Muse (Solid Ground)/Dweller On The Threshold/Beautiful Vision/She Gives Me Religion/Cleaning Windows/Vanløse Stairway/Aryan Mist/Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell/Scandinavia

"It's important for people to get into the music of their own culture... I think it can be dangerous to not validate the music of where you're from, for anybody, whether it's Bulgaria or whatever"  - Van Morrison      

After the deeply spiritual quest that was the holy incarnation of 1980’s Common One, a work of genius to some, an intransigent indulgence to others, Van Morrison was off on the road in 1981 and 1982 before returning with this considerably more accessible album in 1982. A series of critically acclaimed gigs had seen Morrison, now 37, attain a position of respected elder statesman/great survivor in the music scene. Pun had been and gone, morphing into “post punk”, new wavers diversified and “New Romantics” preened around like pretty-boy peacocks, their dandy finery actually helping to give reliable old Van considerable appeal to anyone over the age of 23-23. I fell in to that category and he, and other artists cut from a similar cloth - Dylan, Young, Springsteen - provided an antidote to current “pop” trends, something people like me now wanted to eschew.

Van was Van. He would carry on doing what he wanted to do, irrespective of contemporary fashion. He felt like livening things up with this album and, to a certain extent, resisting some of that Celtic soul that had proved so popular ten to twelve years earlier. In some respects, then, this album was something of a throwback. There were airs of the Caledonian Soul Orchestra is the use of vibrant horns once again and the (comparatively) shorter length of some of the songs. Four or five minutes is short compared to the two fifteen minute tracks that were part of Common One’s six tracks only. It is certainly not a r’n’b album either. The music is Celtic and jazzy in much of its ambience - Van was returning to his old Irish influences.
                               
There is still a spiritual feeling to some of the album, just as Bob Dylan was going through his Shot Of Love religious phase in 1981, Morrison was contemplating religious matters on most albums now. He was also regularly ruminating on the beauty of the British Isles, and the years sent in the USA seemed to find him wanting to return home. In the laid-back, low-key but very Irish opener, Celtic Ray he references “Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales” and the next track, Northern Muse (Solid Ground) features some Celtic pipes in the wistful backing and has lyrical references to County Down. This is Irish as he has been since 1974’s Veedon FleeceDweller On The Threshold is a marvellously funky and jazzy, saxophone-driven piece of spiritual rumination with an absolutely infectious melody. Some great cymbal work on it too. The title track Beautiful Vision is vibrant and entrancing, all confident backing vocals and captivating refrains. She Gives Me Religion is all that and more, a celebration of a track with a superb vocal from Van and another addictive hook. It also has a sumptuous horn solo in the middle.

Cleaning Windows is a quirky addition - sort of funky and lively, it tells of the teenage Van’s time as a window cleaner, cleaning “number 36” while humming Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee blues songs in his head. Van namechecks so many blues and literary figures on this too. Again, it is infuriatingly catchy. No streams of consciousness here. Just fun. Yes, this, of all Van’s albums, is one of the most fun and generally happy. That is “Van happy” remember, which is probably not as happy as many of us.


Vanlose Stairway is another stately, dignified, backing vocal enhanced anthem, this time to an unremarkable-looking flight of stairs in CopenhagenDenmark. It is a very uplifting track, largely due to Van's vocal soaring above the sweet saxophone backing and the the gospel backing voices, which send shivers down the spine. Aryan Mist is a musically jaunty and vocally sleepier reflective number. Van goes on about “going to the river to get clean”, “gurus” and a “fog of confusion hanging over the world”, as if he is back on his spiritual journey. After this, things go a bit more contemplative with the soothing Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell, which is a peaceful track that would not have been out of place on Common One.  The album ends with the peaceful instrumental, Scandinavia, which maybe gives a hint as to the direction the next album would take.

Photo of the Vanløse stairway by Onkle Ulle.

Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983)


Higher Than The WorldConnswater/River of Time/Celtic Swing/Rave On John Donne/Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1/Irish Heartbeat/The Street Only Knew Your Name/Cry For Home/Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 2/September Night   

"Sometimes when I'm playing something, I'm just sort of humming along with it, and that's got a different vibration than an actual song. So the instrumentals just come from trying to get that form of expression, which is not the same as writing a song" - Van Morrison
                                  
For many, this 1983 album is virtually a forgotten one. Not for me. I bought it back then, actually before I owned other more well-known Van Morrison albums, so it always had resonance with me. Morrison had become very spiritual at the time, getting involved with scientology. He wants to produce a laid-back, almost transcendental album, hence four of its eleven tracks being low-key, peaceful instrumentals, such as the very Irish-influenced Connswater and the equally Irish but more lively, bopping saxophone tones of Celtic SwingHigher Than The World is actually one of Morrison's most reflective and serene songs. River Of Time ploughs a similar furrow. The vibe on this album is very relaxing. It is a perfect late night (or even early morning) album. It is not as good as its predecessor, Beautiful Vision, or Common One, or A Sense Of Wonder. However, it is not without its merits.

Rave On John Donne (pictured) is one of those classic Morrison spoken pieces of nostalgia as Morrison speaks to the metaphysical poet of the title (pictured above) as well as Walt WhitmanOmar KhayyamW.B. Yeats, empiricism, theosophy....you get the picture? Spoken against a sleepy saxophone and percussion backing that finally picks up pace at the end (although the live version does this more) it is, despite its obvious possible pretensions, a delight from beginning to end. Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1 is a delightful, chilled out instrumental. To think that, in 1983, "New Romanticism" was at its height - preening peacock pop stars dominated music, yet the comparatively faceless, imageless Van Morrison was putting out albums like this, oblivious to any contemporaneous trends. You have to admire him for that. His music was/is timeless.

Irish Heartbeat, with its wistful lyrics and flute-dominated Celtic air again showed a desire to be more Irish on his albums, as indeed Beautiful Vision had done. In so many ways, this is an intensely spiritual record as well, just as 1980's Common One had been. Van is laying his spirit bare - his Celtic soul and his striving for better understanding. The listener is free to join him.


The Street Only Knew Your Name is a classic piece of Morrison soul. It wouldn't have sounded out of place on 1970's Street Choir. Insistent, melodic Celtic Soul. I read somewhere it was about Gene Vincent and indeed Be Bop A LulaBoppin' The Blues and Who Slapped John are name checked in the fade out. Cry For Home is another uplifting, almost hymnal song with Van getting quite emotional. It is a beautiful song. These last three have been real classic pieces of Morrison soul. Almost effortlessly intense. Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 2 adds some vocals, not many, but enough to just about turn it into a song. Not that it really matters, the voice almost becomes an instrument. "I'm a soul in wonder" growls Van over the sweet, gospelly backing vocals as the track fades out. Beautiful.

September Night floats its instrumental tones around for five minutes or so to gently ease us out of this fundamentally peaceful and rewarding album. I have read somewhere the usual cliched criticisms of this album as being "elevator music". Yeah right. Do me a favour. That is unfair. I'd love it if I were in a lift and this came on.



A Sense Of Wonder (1985)


Tore Down A La Rimbaud/Ancient Of Days/Evening Meditation/The Master's Eyes/What Would I Do/A Sense Of Wonder/Boffyflow And Spike/If You Only Knew/Let The Slave/A New Kind Of Man 

"Pasty suppers down at Davy's chipper"        

Van Morrison's three early/mid eighties albums, Beautiful VisionInarticulate Speech Of The Heart and this, 1985's A Sense Of Wonder follow a similar pattern - some copper-bottomed, piledriving slices of horn-driven Celtic soul, some tranquil, floaty instrumentals and some laid-back, spiritual almost recitations, where Van is in earnest pursuit of the unknowable. The albums are wrapped up in a desire to reconcile the quest of the Celtic soul, his Irishness and his infinite quest for spiritual fulfilment. These are very much his "new age" albums - full of name checks of poets, philosophers, philosophies, doctrines, mystics and his favourite R'n'B/country/jazz artists. There very personal albums and set the tone, in many ways, for the forthcoming albums over the subsequent three decades. Van sets out his message, whether you want to listen or not. It all started here, far more than on his seventies work, which tended to vary from album to album. Morrison himself stated at the time that his music was now increasingly intended "as a means for inducing contemplation and for healing and uplifting the soul...'. It has always baffled me how such sensitivity was often expressed, particularly via his lyrics and music, by a man who, at times was so "difficult" and even boorish, rude and truculently sulky. He truly is one of the great living conundrums.

    
The opener, Tore Down A La Rimbaud is one of those punchy Celtic soul classics interwoven with literary references that only Van Morrison could do. It is a pleasure. Ancient Of Days is one of the effortless, almost funky, pieces of soulful mid paced gentle rock, and Evening Meditation is a peaceful, reflective saxophone and vocal improvisation-driven instrumental. If you are lulled into a sleepy torpor by the previous track's blissful mood, be prepared to ascend to Heaven. Morrison will take you there on The Master's Eyes, if you have even the slightest bit of soul in your body. Van's voice soars above the gospelly backing vocals and the grand build up of the instrumentation. The guitar part in the middle is just so damn moving and you know that Van is going to come growling back in soon, and he does, emoting nostalgically about "buttercup summers". If you are talking about "the master" - you are listening to him. Sublime.

What Would I Do is a slow, jazzy and soulful Ray Charles cover, and here, in Morrison's hands, it airs a spirituality the suits the nature of his recordings at this period in time. If you didn't know, you would think it was a Morrison composition. It suits him perfectly, the whole "see me through" theme. A Sense Of Wonder is another holy experience to listen to. You don't need church on a Sunday morning (as it is now as I write this), just listen to this for your salvation. Here, Van's quest, his search for, and belief in a higher power becomes linked, at the end, with a marvellous evocative recitation of various childhood memories of Northern Ireland. All over a sumptuous saxophone and female backing vocal canvas. It also includes this wonderful line - "you may call my love Sophia but I call my love philosophy...". Not long after that line, Van is musing about "pasty suppers down at Davy's chipper...". Only Van Morrison could come up with this. Suitably, a Celtic-influenced, jaunty instrumental is next, Boffyflow And Spike, with some lively fiddle. There is a more vibrant feel to this album overall than the very peaceful tones of Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart.

If You Only Knew is a jazzy and effervescent cover of a Mose Allison song and points to a lot of the material that Morrison would record over the subsequent thirty years and more. This was the first of these type of songs. After 2000, pretty much every Morrison album would contain a song or two in this style. Let The Slave is a quietly sung, almost spoken delivery of a William Blake poem over a dignified, steady backing. Morrison narrates the poem at the end, almost like an irascible parson delivering a sermon with a splitting headache. Then a lovely bit of saxophone comes in and a Heavenly choir fades the album out. This really is an underrated Morrison classic of an album.

Included in the bonus material is Crazy Jane On God, which was based on a W.B. Yeats poem, but was withdrawn from the original album at the request of the Yeats estate. It is given an almost Celtic Soul meets R'n'B delivery with some slightly over-the-top female vocals. It is pleasant enough, however. Quite slowly infectious, in fact.

Pictured below are a pastie supper and barmbracks, as mentioned in A Sense Of Wonder.



No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)


Got To Go Back/Oh The Warm Feeling/Foreign Window/A Town Called Paradise/In The Garden/Tir Na Nog/Here Comes The Night/Thanks For The Information/One Irish Rover/Ivory Tower  

"I take you through a definite meditation process which is a form of transcendental meditation. It's not about TM, forget about that. You should have some degree of tranquillity by the time you get to the end. It only takes about ten minutes to do this process"   - Van Morrison         

After three albums widely thought to be his "spiritual triad" of work, this, from 1986, bookends those three with Common One at the other end, in 1980. I believe that these two are the most spiritual works in Van Morrison's canon. Yes, the three between are also intensely spiritual, especially the tranquil, meditative Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart, but these two really delve deep into Morrison's spiritual soul.
                      
I cannot analyse the whole thing too well, as I am not as up on the spiritual struggle as I may be. What is clear is that as well as searching for answers, Morrison is always looking back, trying to "reclaim the previous". The first track, Got To Go Back has him referencing 1979's And The Healing Has Begun and getting nostalgic, as he now increasingly does, for those 1950s "days before rock'n'roll", playing Ray Charles and aching to "go back to the feeling". This is very much a precursor for the conceits of Hymns To The Silence and Hyndford StreetOh The Warm Feeling features some appealing oboe, acoustic guitar and organ as Van ruminates upon fulfilment, with the "sun on your countenance". On Foreign Window he mentions Lord Byron and Jean Arthur Rimbaud over a jazzy, soulful mid-tempo semi-rock backing. He loves his poetic references, does Van. In the Palace of the Lord he muses - another familiar lyrical theme.

A new subject for Morrison to rail about on a regular basis from now on is "all those cats who ripped off my work". His slightly sour gripe is expressed on the rumbling, bassy and acoustic A Town Called Paradise, which also features some sumptuous saxophone and fetching backing vocals. It is one hell of an addictive slow cooker of a track. If he is moaning, who cares? Nobody moans as soulfully as Van Morrison. Strains of Jerusalem are heard in the fade out. I think it is time for Van to take us to Heaven. Now, I may not be as spiritual as Van, or Khalil Gibran, or whoever, but In The Garden is just sublime. One of the holiest, spiritually ecstatic pieces of music I have heard. Its beautiful piano coda, and Morrison's gently growling vocal - "you were a violet colour as you sat beside your mother and your father in the garden...". It is a mine of lyrical gems - "and felt the presence of the youth of eternal summers...". Sometimes, Morrison's lyricism is totally nonpareil. I simply love that track to distraction. Only Van Morrison, only he, from musicians, can bring vivid visions of my departed parents into my mind. Yes, that sounds cheesy but it is actually true.

I saw Van in concert a while back, and he was performing In The Garden, at the point he was about to sing "wet with rain", a member of the audience bellowed out the line. Expecting notoriously grumpy Van to get irked, I was surprised when he half smiled and replied in his Belfast brogue - "yesthat's right - wet wit' reeyan..." before continuing the song, perfectly synchronised. You had to be there, I guess, but it was a marvellous moment.

You thought Van was finished - no, Tir Na Nog comes next. A magnificent piece of Celtic/Irish nostalgia for the Church of Ireland and walking all the way to the mythical Tir Na Nog (pictured below). It is sung gracefully and proudly over an insistent, sweeping orchestral backing. It is a truly great track.Here Comes The Knight harks back to the old Them song, in a wistful, airy number, while Thanks For The Information is a mysterious bluesy and jazzy song, with a great vibe to it. Lovely tenor saxophone in the background and some uplifting backing vocals on the chorus. There are hidden depths in this album, to be sure.

One Irish Rover is a gentle, Celtic low key refrain with Van reflecting on his journey. It has been a generally slow tempo album, but, strangely enough it ends with the really lively Celtic soul of Ivory Tower, with Van rocking it up over a punchy horn, harmonica and Duane Eddy guitar backing. He often starts his albums with tracks like this. Here he ends it with one, just for a change. That's Van for you.



Poetic Champions Compose (1987)


Spanish Steps/The Mystery/The Queen Of The Slipstream/I Forgot That Love Existed/Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child/Celtic Excavation/Someone Like You/Alan Watts Blues/Give Me Rapture/Did Ye Get Healed/Allow Me  

"Psychologists will tell you that artists have to be in a state of despair before they produce great work, but I don't think that... In my case I know it doesn't create better work. I produce better work if I'm content. I can't create that feeling if I'm in a state of conflict"  - Van Morrison                

After a long run now of albums in which Van Morrison underwent a spiritual quest, together with re-discovering his Irishness, he was back, giving us more. It was now becoming a well-trodden path, a bit like Bob Dylan’s “born again” period at the turn of the seventies/eighties. Were people beginning to tire of it just a bit? Maybe, but fans fans were now no longer the mainstream. They were happy to stick with him. After all it was getting on for twenty years now.

Now, however, a lot of the express spiritual search was over -  Morrison was now looking inside himself and, to be fair, expressing some romantic feelings too. The Irishness remained, but largely in the ambience of the album’s three instrumentals. Much as Morrisons-post 2000 albums have ploughed the same furrow, this was more of the same. So, if you like it, as I do, you like it. You will get something out of it.
                              
As opposed to an upbeat opener, as was often the case, we had Spanish Steps (pictured) where Morrison warmed up his saxophone technique quite impressively, before it flows into some carefree jazzy piano.

The Mystery sounds like a song from the Beautiful Vision album, full of backing vocals, sweeping strings and lyrics about mysticism. It is reflective, mature song, from a reflective, mature artist. Look at how old Morrison now looks on the cover. Can this balding, grumpy-looking old man release rock records? No. This is more of a work of art - a painting, or a poem, there has not been anything "rock" about Morrison for years now.

The Queen Of The Slipstream (whatever that meant, and whoever she was) is a delightfully atmospheric soulful number, sung against a delightful harp backing, with an addictive vocal refrain and just a great vibe throughout. It is a track I have loved for a long time. There is usually at least one classic on a Morrison album. This is the one here. Just those opening bars send the shivers all over me. It is a majestic, mighty track. Van never lets you down when it matters. A truly sumptuous bass and piano intro leads us into the lovely soul of I Forgot That Love Existed, which is another excellent song. It also contains a wonderful saxophone massage.

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child is an adaptation of an old Negro spiritual. It is sombre, mournful and sparse in its backing, somewhat unsurprisingly, given its derivation. Morrison tackles it emotively and respectfully. It is certainly no toe-tapper, but it has a credible, serious appeal. Celtic Excavation is a beautiful saxophone instrumental.

Someone Like You is actually a totally disarming, romantic number that has subsequently achieved a fair amount of mainstream, Radio Two, popularity. It is easy to understand why. He hadn’t done a blatant smoocher like this for quite a while, if indeed ever.

Alan Watts Blues (who was Alan Watts?) is as Celtic Soul as Van gets on this album - a jaunty, light and lively piece of fun and a great vocal refrain - “cloud hidden...whereabouts unknown…’. There he goes, looking into himself, not searching for the spirits of long departed poets anymore. Give Me Rapture is a gospelly, organ and piano-backed piece of lively Van soul in the Real Real Gone vein (although that  track was still three years away).

Did Ye Get Healed, with its cute Irish girl’s voice at the end is another excellent track - all jazzy with an absolutely mesmeric instrumental hook. Love the backing vocals and the melodic saxophone and Van's gently mumbling, growling voice. Allow Me is another appealing saxophone instrumental to finish off. Pleasant album.



Avalon Sunset (1989)


Whenever God Shines His Light/Contacting My Angel/I'd Love To Write Another Song/Have I Told You Lately/Coney Island/I'm Tired Joey Boy/When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God/Orangefield/Daring Night/These Are The Days

"Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings in case we get famished before dinner"

Just as Bob Dylan's Damascus moment in 1978-79 had shocked the music world and resulted in the release of three devotional Christian-themed albums, so Van Morrison's supposed conversion to evangelical "born again" Christianity similarly shocked people. Granted, he had been "spiritual" on his albums now for many, many years. Had he converted to Buddhism, Scientology, or indulged in transcendental meditation, it would have been no surprise, but to declare himself "born again" was a left field move, even for one as wilfully perverse as Morrison. His brief flirtation with this form of Christianity came after meeting Cliff Richard, but although Cliff was impressed with Morrison's initial zeal, he eventually came to doubt that Van was serious enough about his faith. Either way, Richard duetted with Van on the blatantly religious Whenever God Shines His Light, to great effect, actually. Many people have derided the song, and the collaboration. Not me. I have always loved it. Richards' voice is crystal clear and a perfect foil for Morrison's gruff growl. The song has rhythm, soul and some great hooks. Lay off it - it's good.
                        
The album also sold well, and saw Morrison grabbing a little bit of the mainstream. I knew people back then who certainly were not Morrison fans, yet they had Avalon Sunset in their CD collection, alongside their Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA. I always found that rather strange - why this but not Poetic Champions' Compose or Hymns To The Silence?

Have I Told You Lately? has become well known due to Rod Stewart's more than acceptable cover of it. Morrison's original shows that, like Someone Like You on the previous album, he can write a straight-up love song. The keyboard-replicated wave sounds at the beginning are most atmospheric. It is simply a beautiful song. Funnily enough, in his Christian theme, the song could easily be addressed to God. Maybe it was.

Contacting My Angel is a meditative piece that sounds as if it should have been on Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. Morrison growls some of his vocals and fetchingly whispers some of the rest of it, talking of a "little village", a theme he would revisit later in his career. It is all a bit stream of consciousness. I'd Love To Write Another Song features Georgie Fame, who was beginning a long recording relationship with Morrison here. It is jazzy and jaunty - saxophone, brass and rhythmic shuffling drums. Morrison would do a lot more songs like this over the next twenty-five years.

Coney Island (pictured) is a wonderful little oddity. A short melody that has Morrison reciting memories of earlier days on the Northern Irish coast. He speaks the words and it is all intensely personal. It gets you thinking "he's not such a bad bloke after all, he'd be ok on a trip to Coney Island" as he ruminates on "autumn sunshine magnificent..and all shining through..".

I'm Tired Joey Boy is a moving and mournful Irish lament that is most endearing. Short but very sweet and uplifting. When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God? is the album's other big, essentially spiritual song, which sees Morrison questioning his own ability to meet the demands of his faith. It is slow, tuneful and dignified, appropriately. Orangefield is another beautifully orchestrated piece of Van nostalgia, Cyprus Avenue-style for the sleepy Belfast neighbourhoods of his innocent youth.

Now, then comes Daring Night - a true Morrison classic as he evokes "the Lord of the Dance" and "the Goddess of the Eternal Wisdom" in a most "new age" way for a born again Christian. The backing slowly rises to meet Morrison's challenge, organ swirling, drums pounding, keyboards clanking. Morrison whispers "don't let go. don't let go" and then goes all spontaneous. Marvellous stuff. I remember driving through County Cork on holiday with this playing full volume.

These Are The Days is one of those almost hymnal songs he often uses to close an album. It is a song with a sanctified, holy feel about it, just sublime and achingly beautiful. The soulful, gospelly "na-na-na" fade out vocal seem so right, as well, as the great man leaves another album, his listeners well satisfied.

The bonus track on the remastered CD is an uplifting, entrancing slowed down version of When The Saints Go Marching In, which I love dearly. I love the bit where Morrison growls "St Francis of Asissi comes marching in...". Gets me all tearful.



Enlightenment (1990)


Real Real Gone/Enlightenment/So Quiet In Here/Avalon Of The Heart/See Me Through/Youth Of 1000 Summers/In The Days Before Rock 'n' Roll/Start All Over Again/She's My Baby/Memories

"I'm in the here and now and I'm meditating. And still I'm suffering but that's my problem. Enlightenment, don't know what it is"                                               
Some have said that this album does not match the heights of Avalon Sunset. I disagree, actually preferring this one. Somehow I feel it is a more rounded, fulfilled album, although I am finding it difficult to explain exactly why. As appealing as Coney Island and I'm Tired Joey Boy undoubtedly were, they are much shorter than the material on here. The songs here are just more realised, for me. I feel also, that this is a very soulful album.

The album starts with a true Morrison Celtic Soul classic - the thumping, energetically horn-driven Real Real Gone. It is as if it is 1970 again and the days of His Band And The Street Choir. "Sam Cooke is on the radio" sings Van, sounding as if he is really enjoying himself. The next track is a corker too, the mystical, spiritual Enlightenment. Van is searching again, not sure what enlightenment is. One gets the feeling his spiritual quest will never end. No matter if it sounds as soulful and musically intoxicating as this does. It features uplifting harmonica, percussion, piano and a great rumbling bass sound. So Quiet In Here is sublime - an atmospheric exhortation to peace, silence and sea breezes which sees Van ruminating upon whether he has indeed found paradise. The percussion and bass is truly addictive. It is a great track.

Avalon Of The Heart sees Van revisiting Common One territory again, journeying down to Avalon again, searching for that holy grail once more, exercising his Arthurian fantasies. It goes choral and orchestral at the end, almost turning hymnal. See Me Through has Van feeling he has been too long in the storm. He is feeling quite romantic and reflective on these songs and religious too, singing of the rugged cross and the suffering of his saviour. Because he puts out albums with such regularity throughout his career, it is easy to dismiss some of them as "just another Van Morrison album". Personally, I don't think this applies to any of his albums. Hell, it's Van Morrison. There is always something to be gained from all of them.

Youth Of 1000 Summers has a shuffling, rock'n'roll rhythm and it sort of serves as a lively, upbeat to the bizarre but beguiling In The Days Before Rock 'n' Roll, with is probably Morrison's most odd track every recorded. An Irish poet, Paul Durcan, recites the names of fifties radio stations in a decidedly odd voice, adding a few other lines here and there about someone called "Justin" and bleeping keyboard noises initiating radio waves.  I remember those radio stations from my Father's old radio - HilversumAthloneHelvetiaLuxembourg. It is a complete oddity but I find it strangely compelling. Van does take part too, singing about betting on "Lester Piggott at ten to one...". I also love the bit where Van tells us in his gruff Belfast growl how "the killer came along... the killer....Jerry Lee Lewis..."Great Balls Of Fire"....". He loves a name check or two, does Van.

Start All Over Again is a groovy little jazz number, with some similarities to 1999's Back On Top. It has nice horns and keyboard vibes throughout. She's My Baby is a horn-backed slow romantic number, with Van telling us all about "his lady". He says seems to carry off these cheesy songs, though, somehow. So did the great soul singers, so he is in good company. It features a gorgeous organ solo from Georgie FameMemories is a beautiful, melodic loser. A tender, nostalgic vocal and some crystal clear acoustic guitar and mandolin, plus some Elizabethan-sounding keyboards underpinned by a sumptuous bass line. Lovely stuff.



Hymns To The Silence (1991)


Professional Jealousy/I'm Not Feeling It Anymore/Ordinary Life/Some Peace Of Mind/So Complicated/I Can't Stop Loving You/Why Must I Always Explain?/Village Idiot/See Me Through Part II/Just A Closer Walk With Thee/Take Me Back/By His Grace/All Saints Day/Hymns To The Silence/On Hyndford Street/Be Thou My Vision/Carrying A Torch/Green Mansions/Pagan Streams/Quality Street/It Must Be You/I Need Your Kind Of Loving

"Take me back, take me back, take me back, take me way, way back"

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 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 (pictured) 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.



Too Long In Exile (1993)


Too Long In Exile/Big Time Operators/Lonely Avenue/Ball And Chain/In The Forest/Till We Get The Healing Done/Gloria/Good Morning Little Schoolgirl/Wasted Years/The Lonesome Road/Moddy's Mood For Love/Close Enough For Jazz/Before The World Was Made/I'll Take Care Of You/Instrumental/Tell Me What You Want

"Never has one man's regression therapy sounded this exhilarating" - Peter Paphides - Melody Maker

This is very much a blues album - not nearly as much whimsical, mystical stuff about poets, meditation, peaceful visions or folky Irish rootsy material. It is a Van Morrison steeped in his sixties blue past revisiting it. There are airs of Celtic Soul here and there, however. Overall, though, Van has changed his message a little. It is no longer so much of a full-on spiritual quest either for meditative, blissful self-awareness or the nostalgia of the world of his childhood, although there are patches here and there. There is a little bit of jazz thrown in too, particularly in the final third of the album, something that would feature on quite a few of his subsequent recordings.
          
Too Long In Exile is a shuffling, groovy, organ-driven and soulful number. It just slowly cooks, with some great saxophone at the end. It gets quite powerful at the end as Van improvises vocally and the band kick in. He muses on how he has been "too long in exile" and he wants to come home. It has taken him nearly twenty-five years to get there. Namechecked are Samuel BeckettOscar WildeGeorge Best and Alex Higgins (pictured at the bottom of the review).

 

Big Time Operators is a superb, grinding blues number, one of those tracks Morrison does so well. He finds time to fit in what is fast becoming his pet lyrical theme, however - the "big time operators" he sees as blighting the "music business scene" and presumably not paying him as much as he wants. Lonely Avenue is another rock solid blues number with a powerful, thumping song. Ball And Chain has some lovely Celtic soul horns and a soulful vocal from Morrison, together with an upbeat, melodic blues harmonica.  The old mystical beauty and spiritual awareness is back, though, for the beguiling, organ-driven In The Forest. "By the ancient roads I will take you home again...". Those certainly are familiar lyrics for anyone who had listened to Van Morrison's output over the previous fifteen years or so. Till We Get The Healing Done  harks back to the classic track from 1978's Into The MusicAnd The Healing Has Begun. It is nowhere near as good however (that would be pretty much impossible), but is an acceptable track that sounds like something from 1982's Beautiful Vision or  1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. As the track progresses, though, it grows in potency and appeal, pushing on and on and Morrison's delivery its more urgent. A descending blues riff underpins it throughout.  It ends up about eight and a half minutes in length.

After that slightly spiritual interlude the blues truly returns with a storming version of Them's sixties track, Gloria, featuring the veteran blues talents of the legendary John Lee Hooker. Van and Hooker mesh gloriously (so to speak) together. It is a superb duet. Big, bluesy, exciting and full of balls. The blues continues with the old sixties British r'n'b favourite, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. Morrison delivers the risqué lyrics marvellously, he was made to cope with this sort of material. It is blues rock of the highest quality, again. Wasted Years is another excellent duet with Hooker.


For Lonesome Road the jazzy ambience arrives, complete with a jaunty melody and the use of vibes on the backing. It is full of appeal, actually. The fifties, jazzy thing continues on the slightly clumsy, semi-spoken  Moody's Mood For Love, this one doesn't quite work for me, I'm afraid. A bit too cheesy and "easy listening" for my liking. Close Enough For Jazz is a lively instrumental that was reworked with a vocal on 2012's Born To SingBefore The World Was Made is a lovely, gentle piece of jazzy soul. I'll Take Care Of You takes us back the blues with a slow burning cooker that goes back to the initial atmosphere of the album.  There is one hell of a saxophone solo on the final extended instrumental, Tell Me What You Want that has the vibes in use again as jazz, blues and Celtic soul all merge perfectly.

This album has never quite got the credit it deserved, for some reason. In my opinion, it is an adventurous and slightly different album to many of those that had gone before. Not necessarily better, but just slightly different in tone and mood.

 

Days Like This (1995)


Perfect Fit/Russian Roulette/Raincheck/You Don't Know Me/No Religion/Underlying Depression/Songwriter/Days Like This/I'll Never Be Free/Melancholia/Ancient Highway/In The Afternoon            

"Wouldn't it be great just to be born and nobody told you there was such a thing as religion? Say it didn't exist and you were just told that all you've got is this life and that's it...and there's no heaven, no hell" - Van Morrison

Of all the Van Morrison albums I own, that's all of them, this is one of those that I have always played the least. I know of no real reason for this. It has a superb sound quality and an appealing poppiness to a lot of the tracks. Certainly the two albums either side of this one - the bluesy Too Long in Exile and the soulful The Healing Game have always appealed to me more. That is the only real explanation I can offer.
                    
Anyway, to the songs - Perfect Fit is a really jaunty, catchy piece of jazzy-ish pop. Perfect Radio Two fare. Russian Roulette is a typical slice of Van Morrison soul - brassy, harmonica-enhanced, mid-pace and a growling Van vocal. "I've got to go down to New Orleans, I've got to see Dr. John..." Van sings, dropping a name in amongst moaning about hustlers and the like. Raincheck has a delicious jazz guitar opening and an intoxicating shuffling staccato beat and Van singing about "moving on onto higher ground...and don't let the bastards grind me down...". We've been there before and there is a feel of the mid eighties material on this this one. The sumptuous guitar continues in the middle too. You Don't Know Me is a cover of an old fifties hit and it is delivered here in stylish laid-back jazzy fashion, as Van duets with his daughter, Shana. There is some delicious saxophone on this one. It is a pleasing thing - discovering this album once again.

No Religion has a great bass line, punchy horns and winning backing vocals with that "call and response" thing Van had going on with Brian Kennedy at the time. "I cleaned up my diction, I had nothing left to say..." sings Van. He continues on the next song to have plenty to say about Underlying Depression - he is never far from self-analysing. It has a crystal clear, almost perfect sound, but there is something in the faultless sound on this album that renders it just sightly less soulful than other albums, which is strange, because outwardly, the album is one of Morrison's most blatantly "soul" in its ambience.

Some jazzy vibes introduce the brassy Songwriter where Van tells us, with a somewhat cynical air,  what he does for a living. Days Like This was a hit single with a delightful saxophone solo. I'll Never Be Free was another old crooner song cover, and another duet with Shana. Melancholia has Van ruminating on depression again and he des the vocal thing with Kennedy again. Once was ok, but twice and it starts to get a bit irritating as he literally repeats everything Morrison sings.

Ancient Highway sees Morrison going all mystical for the first time on this album, quoting Pagan Streams from Hymns To The Silence and various other Belfast things. He is "praying to his higher self" - this is No Guru, No Method, No Teacher stuff. It is good to hear him meet his true muse again as the flute whistles and he enters into a stream of consciousness about the mountains and the ancient highway. It probably lasts a bit too long, but they always do when he gets into a groove like this. In This Afternoon is a soulful, romantic number to finish off, with Kennedy doing his stuff again. Thankfully his presence on the next album was toned down, although he blights the A Night In San Francisco album somewhat.

How Long Has This Been Going On? (1995)


I Will Be There/The New Symphony Sid/Early In The Morning/Who Can I Turn To ?/Sack O' Woe/Moondance/Centerpiece/How Long Has This Been Going On?/Your Mind Is On Vacation/All Saints Day/Blues In The Night/Don't Worry About A Thing/That's Life/Heathrow Shuffle     

"The album took four or five hours to record and Ronnie Scott's was chosen for the vibe" - Van Morrison

This is a jazz album collaboration between Van Morrison and his longtime friend, smoky-voiced London scene jazz veteran pianist and singer, Georgie Fame. It was recorded in the legendary Ronnie Scott's club in London. It was recorded "live", as such, but with no audience present.

                         
Without going to huge detail, song by song, it is an immaculately played album, by top quality musicians, crammed full of jazz piano, stand up bass, brass and jazz drums. There are bluesy aspects too, and, as expected, Morrison handles the bluesier numbers, like the jaunty opener I Will Be There and the slow burning Who Can I Turn To? while Fame takes the more blatantly upbeat jazz ones, like the swinging, and slightly irritating The New Symphony Sid. There are also duets, like the toe-tapping Sack O' Woe (which  also has several great instrumental solos). There are jazz covers of the Morrison classic Moondance (which was always very jazzy anyway) and All Saints Day, from Hymns To The SilenceMoondance is extended into a seven minute, brass and bass-driven lively slice of jazz groove. The instrumentation suits the song perfectly. They also cover Frank Sinatra's That's Life impressively.


Morrison's voice is on fine blues form throughout, and he and Fame play off each other effortlessly. They are two highly competent musicians enjoying themselves, doing what they do best. Van has always been able to adapt his instinctively blues voice to cope with jazz, more than adequately. Blues In The Night is a classic example of this. He has always been a big jazz fan, so you feel it is a labour of love for him. It has the feel of an evening in a smoky London club (Ronnie Scott's) in 1958 and is very enjoyable to listen to, particularly late at night. The sound quality is also absolutely superb. The cover is great too.

Tell Me Something (1996)


One Of These Days/You Can Count On Me (To Do My Part)/If You Live/Was/Look Here/City Home/No Trouble Living/Benediction/Back On The Corner/Tell Me Something/I Don't Want Much/News Nightclub/Perfect Moment   

"Heʼs exactly as he appears to be onstage. He never does anything the same way twice. Everything put down in the studio is done live, so whatever you play will likely end up on the finished record" - Ben Sidran

I have to admit outright that I know very little about Mose Allison (save Look Here from The Clash's Sandinista! album, Young Man Blues from The Who and Bonnie Raitt's Everybody's Crying Mercy) and have this album because of the Van Morrison input, so I am basically seeing it from a Morrison point of view. He is joined here by pianist Ben Sidran and sometime sidekick in veteran jazzer Georgie Fame. Mose Allison aficionados seem to be most affronted by this project, but, for me, listening to it from my position of comparative ignorance it sounds a fine, late night, jazzy album to me. As I said, though, I have no knowledge of the originals so take what I say with a reasonably large pinch of salt. (With that in mind, I have just listened to several Allison originals and they have a great sound, instrumentally, and he had a unique laid-back, smooth voice). I liked his tracks, for sure, and appreciate the authenticism of them but it certainly hasn't made me think any worse of this album. Georgie Fame is a highly credible jazz artist, for a start. A brief aside - I was surprised to see that Allison looked like a cross between George Orwell and Oswald Mosley (I had presumed him to be black). So, as from now, I am sampling the originals as well as the covers on this album.

 
             
One Of These Days is an authentic blues grinder with Morrison on growling vocals, while You Can Count On Me (To Do My Part) is an upbeat, brass-driven bassy number with some great saxophone from longtime Morrison collaborator, Pee Wee Ellis. Pianist Ben Sidran's If You Live features himself on suitably, deep, smoky vocals, where he sounds just like Georgie Fame. Fame is on vocal duties himself on Was, which is so "late night" as to be almost comatose. It is atmospheric in buckets though. Fame's voice sounds almost identical to Allison's.

Sidran's take on the afore-mentioned Look Here is soulfully jazzy, rhythmic and less frenetic than The Clash's version. Fame's City Home continues the laid-back, late night urban late 1950s groove.
No Trouble Living has Sidran finding his own inner Georgie Fame once again. All three of them seem to sing on Benediction, although Morrison is the dominant voice. I do like this one, but I prefer Allison's original, with its lighter tones and vocal delivery.


Back On The Corner is a lively, jaunty Georgie Fame, organ-driven number with some great bass and piano too. Tell Me Something sees Van return, and, in my opinion he does impressively - it is full of bluesy atmosphere and killer saxophone. I love it. Allison's version is superb but Morrison gives it something too, I feel. I Don't Want Much is tackled very well by Fame and Sidran. Actually, I prefer their interpretation to Allison's original. The virtuoso saxophone parts on Allison's originals, are, however, truly outstanding. Back to this album, however - News Nightclub is impossibly catchy. Perfect Moment is a tender slow piano backed number to end on. Taking this album on face value - did I enjoy listening to it or not? I did.

The Healing Game (1997)


Rough God Goes Riding/Fire In The Belly/This Weight/Waiting Game/Piper At The Gates Of Dawn/Burning Ground/It Once Was My Life/Sometimes We Cry/If You Love Me/The Healing Game 

"People find it incredible when I tell them that people used to sing and play music in the street. I think there's a whole oral tradition that's disappeared" - Van Morrison

Van Morrison is once more on a nostalgia trip here, on way is a mighty uplifting and impressive album. He looks back to the days of harmonious singing in the streets on the vibrant, soulful The Healing Game, to the Belfast of his childhood on the evocative, rhythmically insistent Burning Ground and gets all reflective on the gorgeous, Stand By Me-influenced It Once Was Me and the beautiful, sensitive Sometimes We Cry. On If You Love Me he uses fifties early rock'n'roll "doo-wop" harmony backing vocals to bring back memories of those days gone by and "those ancient streets" that he is always trying desperately and emotionally to recall. Indeed, these latter three tracks all contain a nostalgic them for the late fifties in their musical structure and delivery.

The album is packed full of strident horns, saxophones, harmonious facing vocals, organ breaks and sumptuous piano. It is Van Morrison's own brand of soul. While not of the upbeat Celtic Soul of the seventies, it is Morrison soul updated for the nineties and it is slightly slower-paced and stately in its execution. There is also some touching self-examination in This Weight and, of course, spiritual concerns are never far from the surface, raising their holy heads on the wonderful, horn-driven and exhilarating Rough God Goes Riding and Waiting Game, in which Morrison claims to be a "serpent filled with venom". He talks of "golden autumn days" and searching for a "higher flame". Traditional Morrison conceits if ever there were.

The mystical side to his nature is also never far away and it is here on the simply lovely Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, with its beautiful chorus refrain and the use of the Celtic Uilleann pipes.  It is my favourite song on the album. Van evokes the spirit of "the great God Pan" and speaks of "the wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn...". Great mystical stuff. Fire In The Belly has Van in familiar rustic mode, speaking of the seasons - "Got to get through January, got to get through February...". He loves nature and the changing of the seasons. Songs like this from him I find irresistible. Just listen to that saxophone and backing vocals on the oh-so-soulful The Healing Game as well, which closes the album. Magnificent. Van raises me higher, yet again.

The bold saxophone from Pee Wee Ellis drives this album in so many ways, so much so that I think of this as "the one with all the vibrant saxophone on it". It is here, also the the black outfit with black hat gets a second outing on the cover, after having done so on Days Like This. It has been his trademark look ever since. I would also say that this possibly the last album not to follow the "r'n'b by numbers" route that most subsequent albums have taken. Not that I dislike those albums, because I appreciate them all, but this could well have been the last truly original Van Morrison album.

2019 Deluxe Edition


Assuming the original album is well-known, I will deal with the bonus material. (I am unsure as to whether the original album has been remastered again - it sounds good, but then so did the 2007 remaster).

Look What The Good People Done is a slow, jazzy blues in the style of the material he did with Georgie Fame. It is a Morrison original but sounds like a cover of a blues/jazz standard. At The End Of The Day is a slow, soulful, evocative number included as a bonus track on the previous issue of the album. The Healing Game is included in its "single version". Personally, I don't have much time for single versions, seeing them as wilful butcherings of excellent tracks. Its inclusion here is pretty superfluous for me. Full Force Gale '96 is given a catchy, slowed-down jazzy soul makeover with the vaguely irritating Brian Kennedy's backing vocals making a few appearances. It is pleasant enough and it is always interesting to hear a new interpretation, but I prefer the original. Another intriguing new coat of paint is given to St. Dominic's Preview which here features an Astral Weeks-style strummed acoustic backing together with some fetching Celtic violin. It reminds me of his extended version of Wonderful Remark that appeared on The Philosopher's Stone.

The alternate version of The Healing Game is simply sumptuous - backed by a beautiful bass and piano. Van Morrison soul at its very best. Fire In The Belly has a slower, slightly sparser backing, again concentrating on an understated bass and melodic, tinkling piano. Didn't He Ramble reappeared a few years as The Philosopher's Stone, with slightly changed lyrics, on the Back On Top album. The jazz version of The Healing Game is once more backed by piano and bass and then some grainy jazzy saxophone and brush drums come in. It is all extremely stately. Sometimes We Cry is extended to a slow-burning, soul-drenched eight minutes featuring some great saxophone.  It doesn't improve incredibly on the original, you just get a few more minutes of Van and Brian Kennedy exchanging "cry - cry" vocals. Mule Skinner Blues is a harmonica-driven, shuffling blues and A Kiss To Build a Dream On is a laid-back, late-night jazzy cover of a Louis Armstrong track from 1962. It is the sort of thing Van did on his 2017 Versatile album.

 

Then we get several duets with John Lee HookerCarl Perkins and Lonnie Donegan, that are made all the more poignant by the fact that three of them were quite near the end of their lives when they recorded these tracks. The John Lee Hooker tracks particularly so. The Carl Perkins songs are just a delight. Paul McCartney would love these, I think. They are upbeat rock 'n' roll numbers and Van seems to be really enjoying himself. Matchbox is a particular favourite of mine - "if you don't want my peaches, don't shake my tree...", a line that just makes me smile. Sittin' On Top Of The World is great too. These tracks are the real gems in this collection, if you're fan who enjoys these sort of relative obscurities, that is. Just check out the deliciously bluesy My Angel.

The live concert material from Montreux has excellent sound quality - warm and bassy, as I like it. It includes seven tracks from The Healing Game album plus several others. Foreign Window, from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is excellent. It is good to hear tracks like this done live. Ditto the vibrant Tore Down A La Rimbaud and the Georgie Fame organ solo on Tupelo Honey.

Overall, this is an excellent set for hard-core fans, as things like this always are. I guess that is who will buy it, and quite rightly too, they won't be disappointed.

Pictured below is Pan, the piper at the gates of dawn.



Back On Top (1999)


Goin' Down Geneva/The Philosopher's Stone/In The Midnight/Back On Top/When The Leaves Come Falling Down/High Summer/Reminds Me Of You/New Biography/Precious Time/Golden Autumn Day  

"It doesn’t matter to which God you pray - precious time is slipping away" - Van Morrison

A pugnacious Van Morrison declared himself to be Back On Top here, in 1999, and he saw out the old millennium by beginning with a vibrant, pulsating piece of pounding blues rock in the catchy Goin' Down Geneva which sees him on top gruff vocal form. Some searing guitar kicks in near the end. This is a great start. It has a great line "Vince Taylor used to live here, nobody's even heard of him..." referencing a little-known "cult" late fifties rocker. Van sounds really "up" for this album. It is pretty much a blues and r'n'b album, with a few upbeat rock'n'roll-ish cuts and some typical slow-paced reflective and romantic Morrison soulful numbers. There is not the jazz-influenced material that would come in the next few years, nor country-tinged songs. The punchy songs are very much blues-influenced as opposed to say "Celtic Soul", something he had pretty much left behind nine years previously.

After such a breakneck start, it soon becomes time to slow things down and we get the beautiful, laid-back tones of The Philosopher's Stone. A melodic, stately piano and organ and some gentle percussion back Van as he "looks for the silver lining in the clouds", getting all mystical and searching - his "job is turning base metal into gold and he was born on the back street jelly roll...". The song is absolutely jam-packed with Van-isms, and some copper-bottomed blues harmonica too. In The Midnight is a gentle, soulful ballad, with Van again getting it dead right, vocally. Back On Top is a lively tuneful commercial blues number, featuring some classic harmonica and saxophone. Van moans of his feeling of "isolation at the top of the bill..." yet he states he is "back on top". It is what would comes to be a regular gripe of his - the price of fame and success. It is actually a somewhat arrogant song, but no matter, it sounds good.

 

Any arrogance is quickly diluted by the sensitive, tender and beautiful When The Leaves Come Falling Down. Van evokes the changing of the seasons as he does so well - "...in September when the leaves come falling down...". My goodness, this sometimes irascible man can write some killer romantic, sad and meaningful songs. What a paradox he is, a mass of contradictions.

High Summer is very much a song that would have fitted in well on 1982's Beautiful Vision. It has that soulful Morrison vibe. Listen to it, you will recognise instantly what I mean. The harmonica is delicious. Reminds Me Of You is an organ-driven slowie, with Van at his most yearning. Unfortunately, grumpy Morrison returns with the frankly ludicrous New Biography, which sees him moaning about a new book written about him, and the misery of "the fame game". Give it a rest eh, Van? Put up with the book, I am sure you can, really. It is a catchy tune though! It has one hell of a saxophone solo part too. In true unpredictable fashion, next up is the impossibly addictive, singalong Precious Time that has Van almost losing himself in pleasure. The song is joyful and exhilarating. I remember my wife and I managing to get ourselves right up to the front, near the stage, just as he played this at Battle AbbeySussex a few years back. I swear he smiled a couple of times while playing it. His saxophone is wonderful on it. (A brief aside about that live performance, just after Precious Time had finished, I saw and heard him bark Brown Eyed Girl at his band and he, incredibly, launched into the song he supposedly hates playing. Delivering it most enthusiastically. We certainly struck it lucky that night. The encores featured Chris Farlowe too, so doubly so).

Golden Autumn Day is a bizarre song to close the album. Musically, it is beautiful, with some killer saxophone and a sumptuous bass sound. Half the lyrics are about the beauty of a golden autumn day, the other half is about being mugged at knifepoint. It is strange, as most of Van's "golden autumn" songs are about the beauty of nature, here he transposes it with something disturbing, which is most unusual.



KEEP ME SINGING (2000-2019)



You Win Again (2000)


Let's Talk About Us/You Win Again/Jambalaya/Crazy Arms/Old Black Joe/Think Twice Before You Go/No Way Pedro/A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues/Real Gone Lover/Why Don't You Love Me/Cadillac/Baby (You Got What It Takes)/Boogie Chillen    

"Van Morrison has always been eccentric, but as he grows older, he seems to get more comfortable with his eccentricities and doesn't strain as hard to be distinctive" - Stephen Thomas Erlewine - AllMusic

I love this album. It is a slice of lively, highly enjoyable piano-driven upbeat country rock with a Cajun feel. The piano, of course, is played by Linda Gail Lewis, sister of the great Jerry "Killer" Lee Lewis. She adds some soulful vocals too. Despite a good start to the professional relationship, (they toured the album together, successfully), it would appear, however, that things seemingly soured between the two of them for various reasons and a highly unfortunate, publicised court case (thankfully settled amicably to the satisfaction of both sides) was the eventual outcome. You would never tell there was any bad blood on this album, however, not one tiny bit. The two of them play off each other absolutely perfectly and sound utterly enthusiastic. Musically, they are made for each other - effortless complimenting the other, two voices and piano. The band are top notch too. The whole thing just sounds great.


     
Let's Talk About Us is a totally addictive delight to kick things off. You Win Again is a lead-back, steel guitar, lachrymose country ballad, while I defy anyone to still still during their take on JambalayaCrazy Arms is back to ballad territory - barroom piano and steel guitar to the fore. Old Black Joe is another deliciously exhilarating number, while the blues are visited in Think Twice Before You Go which uses an ever-popular blues riff to great effect. No Way Pedro is a steel guitar-driven bluesy country song (actually written by Morrison, his only writing contribution to the album) with Linda's piano (almost) on fire.


Shot Of Rhythm & Blues just bristles with blues rhythm, featuring some excellent, grinding guitar. It is a shame that Van appears to have disowned the album because it is seriously good. Real Gone Lover is another toe-tapper, with the two vocalists singing off against each other. I can't state enough just what a pleasure this album is from beginning to end. It is real breath of fresh air. Why Don't You Love Me is a country standard that was also covered by Elvis Costello on Almost Blue (although his version was far more frenetic). The version here is more laid-back and mournful, something I feel the song demands.

Cadillac is a breakneck piece of harmless fun. Van even whoops it up a bit on this one, things must have been ok at that point. Baby You Got What It Takes uses the Shakin' All Over guitar riff. Linda has some extended vocal parts on this one, with her strangely sexy backwoods country twang enhancing the feel of the track to great effect. John Lee Hooker's Boogie Chillen ends the album with "the riff that launched a thousand songs" pumping out to great effect. I cannot recommend this album highly enough. It's great.

Down The Road (2002)


Down The Road/Meet Me In The Indian Summer/Steal My Heart Away/Hey Mr. DJ/Talk Is Cheap/Choppin' Wood/What Makes The Irish Heart Beat/All Work And No Play/Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby?/The Beauty Of Days Gone By/Georgia On My Mind/Only A Dream/Man Has To Struggle/Evening Shadows/Fast Train        

"Every few years, Morrison manages to tap into some magical space that sums up both his career and his influence in one fell swoop - not that they're all that groundbreaking, they're just penultimate pieces of perfection. Such is the case with his latest near-masterpiece 'Down the Road', which finds him fondly recalling the folk, blues, and jazz to which he grew up listening" - John Metzger - The Music Box

As I have mentioned in other reviews of Van Morrison's work, after 1997's The Healing Game an awful lot of his regularly released output ploughed the now familiar r'n'b furrow. It seemed that every two years or so, Van would pop into a studio and lay down some perfect, upbeat and soulful r'n'b material, virtually in his sleep, and then tour before doing it again. It has been that way for many years now. I am not really complaining, because I like the material. It is also not really for me to ask why - it just is.

This album was released at a time when 75 minute CD albums were de rigeur, perceived as giving maximum value for money. That is all very laudable, but, for me, those albums go on far too long. The Rolling Stones did it, so did Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, and many others - huge bloated albums, track after track, that, "back in the day" would have been double albums.

All tracks are perfectly acceptable, of course, immaculately played and in superb sound quality, but the album would not have suffered if it had been three or four tracks shorter. It would have made it easier to focus on the material that was there. As it is, I do not play this album too often, subconsciously thinking that it is too long. Of course I could just play half of it, but I am sure you get my point. (aside - Just get on and play it, man!).

 
                                     
Anyway, on to the music - as now seemed traditional, a bluesy upbeat number opened the set in Down The Road before some familiar bucolic, romantic for the forces of nature Morrison arrived with the lovely, lively and jazzy Meet Me In The Indian Summer. I have to say that the title track is a killer - great harmonica and a classic, growling Morrison vocal and Indian Summer just lifts the spirits. Geraint Watkins' Hammond organ is just irresistible on both these tracks and Van's saxophone on Summer really cooks. Jazz is creeping in as an influence on this album, far more so than on other albums. Steal My Heart Away is a slow tempo, romantically tender ballad, which some wonderful brass (French horn?) passages and an excellent vocal. Just a lovely track. So melodic.

The jaunty, toe tapping Hey Mr. DJ was perfect as a single - catchy, slightly rock'n'roll-influenced and eminently singalong. Addictive organ breaks once again and a fetching, rather lisping in places vocal from Van. Talk Is Cheap is probably the most authentic blues on here - slow burning grinding beat and excellent harmonica and some suitably gruff vocals. Morrison does this sort of blues so well.  I love it. Choppin' Wood is a lively, jazzy blues which again points to a slight change in musical direction. Evening Shadows is another jazzy number too.

The old Irish reflections are here too, in the delightful country waltz beat of What Makes The Irish Heart Beat (hints as to what was to come on 2006's Pay The Devil) and the nostalgia for the fifties and sixties rears its head in the organ driven blues of Whatever Happened To PJ Proby?. While ruminating on the music scene in the sixties, (the lyrics are packs full of references) Van also asks "whatever happened to me?".

Van, increasingly, had started to insert a regular moan into his albums, usually about the "music industry", about people "ripping him off" or about life's daily struggle when one is famous. On this album it is present in the otherwise melodic and appealing Man Has To Struggle.  There is nowhere near as much bitterness and bile on this album as on others though. Van is quite peaceful and at one with himself on most of these songs. He really is such a sensitive songwriter. A bit of sentimental nostalgia, as reflected in the cover image, but far less of the frustration with modern life. Don't worry, though, it would be back on Magic Time and Keep It Simple.

Georgia On My Mind is a convincing cover version. Only A Dream and The Beauty Of Days Gone By see Morrison at his most beautifully romantic and sensitive. Nostalgic and thoughtful. All Work And No Play was a lively, vibrant jazzy number that hinted at the sort of material that would appear on 2005's jazz-influenced album Magic Time. Fast Train is just a wonderful slice of Morrison soul to close the album. Another truly uplifting cut. Listening to the album again, maybe I am discovering hidden depths. There is more than just r'n'b on here. There are real jazz, country, soul and rock'n'roll influences too. It has been a pleasure to dig this one out again.



What's Wrong With This Picture? (2003)


What's Wrong With This Picture?/Whinin' Boy Moan/Evening In June/Too Many Myths/Somerset/Meaning of Loneliness/Stop Drinking/Goldfish Bowl/Once In A Blue Moon/Saint James Infirmary/Little Village/Fame/Get On With The Show      

"This is the sound of self-assurance as it articulates itself with grace and aplomb" - Thom Jurek - AllMusic

Van Morrison went full on down the jazz route with this album, even so far as getting it released on the legendary Blue Note jazz label. There had been hints of jazz leanings in several of his previous albums, but on this one there were several jazz/laid back rock songs. Van can never steer far from the blues, however, and, by the end of the album, I find I feel far more bluesy than jazzy. For me, it is a blues album with quite a few jazz influences.

The opener, What's Wrong With This Picture? fits the description perfectly of a laid-back piece of jazzy rock. It has a firm drum sound, some excellent jazzy guitar, plus a bit of background typical Morrison blues harmonica and a good vocal in which Van even starts laughing at one point. It is clear from the very outset that the musicianship and sound quality is going to be of the highest quality. Whining' Boy Moan is a jaunty piece of fifties-sounding jazz, with Richard Dunn's Hammond organ to the fore and Van delivering an enthusiastic, confident jazz vocal before giving us some wailing saxophone. Evening In June finds us in more familiar territory - a reflective rhythmic song celebrating nature in a romantic fashion, as Morrison had done on many previous albums. It is far more melodic, slow tempo rock than jazz, although there are jazzy influences in the saxophone backing and the smoky solo.

Just when you thought Van had stopped his griping about this and that - misconceptions about him, the music industry and so on, he gets a little dig in about there being Too Many Myths concerning him that are eating in the way of a relationship. It's all about the pesky "fame game" with Van in these later years. He won't let it rest. No matter, really, as it sounds bluesy impressive and powerful. He could sing the telephone directory over this backing, to be honest, and it would sound good. Somerset, however, is a return to a smooth, romantic feeling as Van waxes lyrical about "sipping cider in the shade..." over an addictive saxophone, bass and drum brush backing. It also features the legendary Acker Bilk on clarinet. Kudos for that one. It is a nice, relaxing song. Very chilled out and summery. Meaning Of Loneliness continues the quiet ambience with Van ruminating about solitude, frustration and the fact it takes "more than a lifetime to get to know yourself...". There is some delicious saxophone and organ on this one. He still finds time to namecheck philosophers Nietzche and Hesse and then going all "scat" at the end. The tempo changes now for the frantic, almost jazz meets skiffle Stop Drinking - a old blues song about giving up wine and drinking gin and champagne instead. It is an immaculately played piece of upbeat fun. Van is audibly enjoying himself, growling, blowing saxophone, controlling the band effortlessly.

Having to much of a good time, Van? Time for another moan, surely? Here we go - "What will it take for them to leave me alone - I'm just a guy who sings songs..." he complains, going on about living in a Goldfish Bowl and the pitfalls of celebrity. It's a great blues song, for sure, but the message is starting to grate somewhat by now. It's been a feature of most albums since 1991's Hymns To The Silence"I don't have no hit record, I don't have no TV show, so why should I have to live in this goldfish bowl?..." he muses, again and again. I think he does a pretty good job of staying out of the limelight, actually. The lively, pleasant Once In A Blue Moon is the obvious commercial song on the album - like the previous Hey Mr DJ and Precious Time). It is a singalong number and most pleasant on the ear.

Over the years, Van has liked the odd "death and illness" song, and he goes us one here now, with a cover of the old blues Saint James Infirmary. He does it brilliantly, full of gravitas and New Orleans blues dignity. Great stuff. Little Village has Van going Celtic for the first time on the album, harking back to some of those great seventies/early eighties albums. It is laid-back Celtic soul of the kind he just does so damn well. It builds to a really beautiful climax, certainly one of my favourite tracks on the album. One more song about fame? sure, ok. We get Fame where Van tells us not to "buy any of that old Andy Warhol guff...". Come on, Van, you love it really. It is another good blues number, though. Get On With The Show has a horn intro worthy of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and it has a late fifties-style Drifters-style hook and a sumptuous brass backing and a strong soulful vocal, but there is a gripe under all that musical magnificence. Van just wants to be left alone to get on with the show....



Magic Time (2005)


Stranded/Celtic New Year/Keep Mediocrity At Bay/Evening Train/This Love Of Mine/I'm Confessin'/Just Like Greta/Gypsy In My Soul/Lonely And Blue/The Lion This Time/Magic Time/They Sold Me Out/Carry On Regardless    

"You expect to encounter a tired legend, a once-mighty king becalmed and tamed by the miles and years. You find instead an echo of a full-throated roar hanging in the air, the tell-tale signs of a bloody struggle, and an empty cage. The lion in winter is on the loose" - Andy Whitman - Paste

2003's What's Wrong With This Picture? had seen Van Morrison recording on the legendary jazz label Blue Note, although it turned out to be far more of a blues album, to be honest. This new album, from 2005, saw him exploring his jazzy side once more, although, as usual, the blues and soul are never far away. In many ways, though, this is a far jazzier album than the previous one. It is one of the most jazz-orientated albums he has done.
                        
Stranded is a beautiful song to open with, enhanced by Van's saxophone and soulful vocal plus some lovely piano. Celtic New Year is a soul-influenced number that has strong echoes of Morrison's Beautiful Vision material from 1982. I had forgotten just what a lovely track this was. Now, for quite a few tracks we are going to go all jazz, very much so. More so than ever before.

Keep Mediocrity At Bay is a jaunty, jazzy number that sees Van griping about mediocrity over a harmonica and excellent jazz guitar backing. Evening Train is great, a frantic beat and packed with big, rumbling bass lines and wailing saxophone. Great stuff. This Love Of Mine is jazzier than anything on the previous album - all stand up bass, tenor saxophone and an authentic-sounding lively  jazz vocal from Morrison. I'm Confessin' has jazz meeting the blues in a perfect merging of styles. It sounds very fifties and features more sumptuous jazz guitar, something that didn't feature so much before, and some great trumpet too.

Just Like Greta starts in Madame George/Listen To The Lion acoustic style, before Van starts going all introspective and self-examinational, telling us he "needs solitude...", just like Greta Garbo.... We know, Van, you have been telling us for several albums now, but, it has to be said, you tell it so well. Gypsy In My Soul is an intoxicatingly rhythmic bluesy number. Lonely And Blue is another bassy, blues/jazz ballad, while The Lion This Time is a mystical revisiting of Listen To The Lion, with some classical string passages. A bit like the original, however, it goes on just a bit too too long.

Magic Time is a typical piece of Van Morrison "take me back" soulful nostalgia at which he is the absolute master. The song as a lovely, relaxing, organ-powered feel. There is some superb harmonica from Van and yet more wonderful guitar from David "Foggy" Little who tragically died soon after recording the album (which is dedicated to him). Did you think Van would let the whole album go by without a moan about the evils of the music industry? Of course not. They Sold Me Out is self-explanatory as to how he is feeling. It is lyrically bilious, but, as usual, it is soulful and addictive. "They sold me out for a few shekels more and divided up my robes...". Is Morrison comparing himself to Jesus Christ in his suffering? Surely not. He is you know, between the lines, he really is. Carry On Regardless has him belly-aching about "TV trash" and "media re-hash" and how is just going to carry on - quoting several "Carry On" films as he does so, amusingly. It has an excellent shuffling beat to it and even more killer guitar. The track ends with Van laughing, would you believe. He must have enjoyed himself. Great album, however, regardless. Carry on Van.



Pay The Devil (2006)


There Stands The Glass/Half As Much/Things Have Gone To Pieces/Big Blue Diamonds/Playhouse/Your Cheatin' Heart/My Bucket's Got A Hole In It/Back Street Affair/Pay The Devil/What Am I Living For?/This Has Got To Stop/Once A Day/More And More/Till I Gain Control Again 

"There's a sense of fragility and defeat, and it is moving in a way that a Van Morrison song rarely moves the listener. The singer sounds utterly broken down and shaken: 'hold me now, hold me now' he unsteadily repeats 'until I gain control again'. Even Morrison's most emotional material in the past never projected such pretty frailty" - Erik Hage

Country albums - they've all done one - Elvis CostelloThe ByrdsRingo Starr, even UB40 have dabbled in the hard drinkin', hard divorcin' self-pitying thing. Why not Van Morrison? This album should surprise no-one. Morrison was brought up on Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and the like, along with jazz and the "light programme". This is another way of him revisiting his past, nostalgically, which he loves to do. Like his Versatile jazz album and is Roll With The Punches blues album, this is very much a labour of love. It goes hand in hand with his collaboration album with Linda Gail Lewis - You Win Again. The latter, however, is far more lively and Cajun bayou-style in its country than this, far more lachrymose offering. I prefer the duets with Lewis, to be honest, but that is just my own personal taste.

Some commentators (notably one from the BBC, writing on Amazon's page for the album) have mercilessly criticised it, somewhat unfairly in my book. It is what it is. It is Van Morrison singing country standards, and a few of his own tracks written in the same vein. He, as usual, employs a top notch band. The sound and his own delivery is truly superb. The songs sound pretty respectful and authentic covers to me (not that I am familiar with the originals), so the accusation that there is some sort of disrespect involved is preposterous. Morrison is an aficionado of both this style of music and the artists who produced it, that is why he chose to record it.
                      
The songs are often given a bit of a bluesy touch from Morrison, which is not really surprising, so maybe it offends country purists in that respect. There is lots of piano, steel guitar and slide guitar, so if you like that sort of thing you should be pretty well satisfied. There are no horns, which is surprising. Morrison's growling, soulful voice seems to suit the material down to the ground, it has to be said. Just listen to a song like Big Blue Diamonds for proof, or the melodious Half As Much. His own composition, Playhouse is far more blues than country, to be honest, with the old blues repetition of lines. Van's own Pay The Devil is excellent too. Throughout, though, Van gives these mournful country laments a bluesy touch. Your Cheatin' Heart is just perfect, in my book. Don't You Make Me High is a tad silly, though. Yes, overall, it is no real substitute for a "proper" Van Morrison album, but it is certainly not a bad occasional listen. Not at all. I like it.

Keep It Simple (2008)


How Can A Poor Boy/School Of Hard Knocks/That's Entrainment/Don't Go To Nightclubs Anymore/Lover Come Back/Keep It Simple/End Of The Land/Song Of Home/No Thing/Soul/Behind The Ritual          

"Entrainment is when you connect with the music - entrainment is really what I'm getting at in the music. It's kind of when you're in the present moment - you're here - with no past or future" - Van Morrison

This album from Van Morrison is as blue as the cover. It is one of his bluesiest albums. Van has pretty much been a blues rock artist since the mid-nineties, when he settled into that groove, with bits of jazz and country thrown in. That is certainly the case here. His mystical, spiritual quests are long gone now.
                 
It kicks off with a wonderful, slow burning blues potboiler in How Can A Poor Boy?, which is packed full of harmonica and blues guitar over its insistent, intransigent blues rhythm. School Of Hard Knocks is a appealing, melodic song with Van telling us that he was "educated in the school of hard knocks...". We know, Van, you've been telling us for a while now. Yes, Morrison doesn't change, not so much out of what is often a cynically-perceived wilful stubbornness, but simply because he doesn't want to. He is comfortable with what he does, and, if you are of a mind to accept it too, so will you be. This effortless bluesy approach is what he is happy doing and, listening to it, it has a "comfortable pair of slippers" feel to it. That's Entrainment has such as addictive groove to it. The music is, as always, immaculately played. Personally, I will always get pleasure from these albums.

Van's moaning is not quite as full on here, he rumbles away between the lines here and there, but in not quite so bilious as in the past. Now, he is just an ageing man telling us how he Don't Go To Nightclubs Anymore, in a re-write of the crooner classic Don't Get Out Much Anymore. He is right too, one needs to be "age-appropriate". Lover Come Back is a slow ballad with a bit of a Celtic air to it, with a twangy country guitar introduced at one point. "We got to keep it simple and that's that....", Van tells us in the gorgeous, soulful Keep It Simple. That's just the way it is. You know, he's got a point. The End Of The Land is a slow tempo soul blues, with a sumptuous, deep bass line and an evocative vocal.


Song Of Home is an organ-driven country ballad with some good backing vocals. No Thing is a slowed-down number which touches of rock'n'roll balladry in it and some jazzy backing vocals. Like many of the songs on here, they are blues songs with touches of country, like the steel guitar on here, or those rock'n'roll doo-wop style backing vocals, or some jazzy organ breaks. Soul has Morrison telling us, convincingly, what soul is, suitably soulfully. He hits that groove and it is most evocative, with a lovely saxophone break from the man himself, and some killer guitar too. The album ends on another soul-influenced track, the uplifting, inspiring Behind The Ritual. This is possibly the best track on the album. Morrison's vocal is a bit slurry, but affectingly so. The tone is deliberate. The song builds and builds and it is totally atmospheric. A great end to a good album. Every few years, he has released these albums and, although they don't change much, I love them all.

Incidentally, on the front cover, Van looks somewhat like a cross between the legendary cricket commentator John Arlott and actor Michael "Foyle's War" Kitchen.



Born To Sing: No Plan B (2012)


Open The Door To Your Heart/Goin' Down To Monte Carlo/Born To Sing/End Of The Rainbow/Close Enough For Jazz/Mystic Of The East/Retreat And View/If In Money We Trust/Pagan Heart/Educating Archie                

"....the worldwide preoccupation with money, materialism, income equality, and the greed that has poisoned society" while further remarking: "I’m not proselytizing, it’s not some kind of manifesto. Songs are just ideas, concepts, and you just put the mic there and go" - Van Morrison

It had been four years since Van Morrison had released an album, which, for him, was quite a long sojourn (his longest in his career, in fact).  His albums were now following quite a familiar pattern - bluesy laid-back, sometimes slightly jazzy rock. The old mystical quests and nostalgia for fifties Belfast were in the past now. On the whole, you knew what you were getting now. If you like it, as I do, fair enough, you will always be satisfied. Many people find the "blues rock by numbers" somewhat frustrating and long for a return to the glory of days gone by. I am not sure that will ever happen. What you do get, though, is an artist in total control, effortlessly doing what he now has decided he does best. This album, like 2003's What's Wrong With This Picture?, was released on the legendary Blue Note jazz label. Like that album, this one is also slightly more of a blues album, with jazzy tones, in my view.

Open The Door To Your Heart (not the Northern Soul song) is an appealing soulful piece that smoothly slides along, with the now expected strong vocal from Morrison and top quality backing. The jazzy, rhythmic Goin' Down To Monte Carlo (pictured) has irritated some people by its repeated lyrics - "goin' down to Monte Carlo, about 25k from Nice..." is, admittedly repeated many times, but aren't many blues lyrics traditionally related a couple of times? Van moans about "phoney pseudo jazz" being played in a restaurant, however,  as he tries get away from people who are "driving him mad...". You have to laugh a bit, as he plays a jazz-influenced song himself and then proceeds to launch into the oft-repeated old moan about people annoying him again, that he started on 1991's Hymns To The Silence. The track contains some superb stand up solo bass lines and Van delivers a sumptuous saxophone solo. Despite those very minor misgivings, I have to say that I love the track. Born To Sing is a bluesy number with some wonderful New Orleans-style saxophone lifting it higher, despite its slightly pedestrian beat.

End Of The Rainbow is a bassy, melodic and beautiful slow number with Van taking issue with the world's financial problems. It contains a beautiful trombone solo and yet again some fine saxophone. It is the sax that gives the album its jazziest flavour. That mood is continued with the jaunty reprise of Close Enough For Jazz from 1993's Too Long In Exile, this time with added lyrics. Mystic Of The East has some very typical Morrison soulful tones to it, bringing to mind some of the albums from the eighties and nineties. He now lays down tracks like this so nonchalantly that it is easy to criticise him as if he is not putting in much effort. Personally, I feel that misses the point. He is a master craftsman.


Retreat And View is a laid-back jazzy blues number that just sort of washes over you. Very late-night and relaxing. "Who's got it?" says Van half way through and the trombone solo and then the tenor sax kick in. Beautiful. The insistent, shuffling If In Money We Trust is one of his jazziest pieces on the album, with a big clunky piano sound that has shades of South African jazzer Abdullah Ibrahim. It is probably the album's best cut, featuring some addictive bass and percussion and a committed, cynical vocal from Morrison. If you had been missing the blues for a while, though, it is back, big time, with the thumping Pagan Heart, with its slow, powerful blues beat and Van going on about "the crossroads..." in true blues styleIt is amazing how many blues numbers re-use the same notes and riffs, but it just doesn't seem to matter. If you like it, you like it.

Educating Archie sees Van ending with a good old moan about the media, individuality, the global elite and so on, over a conventional mid tempo blues backing. It has been a solid album, though, and if you like the sort of material Van Morrison now puts out, of course, you will like this.



Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue (2015)


This is a 2015 compilation of Van Morrison re-visiting some of his old songs with special guest vocalists joining him. It is a most enjoyable album. He doesn't choose his well-known songs, preferring to re-work lesser-known ones which was wise, and he chooses his partners well too.

These are the duets:-

Some Peace Of Mind from Hymns To The Silence - with Bobby Womack. Soulful as you would expect from gravel-voiced Bobby Womack. Nice trumpet solo too.  Van on excellent improvised vocal form at the end.

If I Ever Need Someone from His Band And The Street Choir - with Mavis Staples. Legendary Stax/gospel singer Mavis Staples raises this Celtic soul slow burner from 1970 higher with her by now aged, throaty but still so damn strong vocals. She laughs at one point with the sheer enjoyment of doing it. The pleasure from both of them really comes across.

Higher Than The World from Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart - with George Benson. Jazzy soul guitar virtuoso Benson is a good choice for this mystical airy floaty number from 1983. Benson contributes some trademark jazzy electric guitar superbly. This version outdoes the original. Great saxophone at the end, too.

Wild Honey from Common One - with Joss Stone. Nubile young soulstress Joss Stone tackles this slow, reflective number, again from the mystical, bucolic period. She takes the vocal slightly beneath Morrison's growl and provides a strong sweetness that suits the title. Her strength of vocal lends the song a real soully feel. Again, the backing is superb, as indeed it is on the whole album.

Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby? - from Down The Road - with P.J. Proby. The tight-trousered sixties singer who never quite made it joins Van himself for a song about his descent into obscurity. It is played in smoky jazz club style, with an addictive stand up bass and some jazzy slow drums. Proby's voice is gruff and soulful. It enhances the track well, and it is a most atmospheric rendition.

Carrying A Torch from Hymns To The Silence - with Clare Teal. Instead of Tom Jones, with whom he had duetted this in the past, Van is joined by jazz singer Clare Teal. I love this song anyway but when Clare starts her vocal part it sends shivers down my spine. One of the best duets on the album. Lovely. My goodness this grumpy old man has some soul. This song always makes me somewhat tearful.

The Eternal Kansas City from A Period Of Transition - with Gregory Porter. Contemporary jazz singer Gregory Porter is on vocal duty here. A great bass intro is followed by some sumptuous, punchy brass. Porter's strong, soully voice adds gravitas to a performance that improves considerably on the original. There is a "hard bop" style jazzy solo part in the middle.

Streets Of Arklow from Veedon Fleece - with Mick Hucknall. Flame-haired Simply Red singer features on this mystical, Celtic number from 1974. The mysterious feeling of the original is maintained as the flute swirls all around a haunting Hucknall vocal that really does the song justice.

These Are The Days from Avalon Sunset - with Natalie Cole. Nat King Cole's daughter adds her sweet, soaring soul tones to this uplifting, gospelly song. She does a good job. The song is more jazzy than the original. It has some excellent saxophone and trumpet solos.

Get On With The Show from What's Wrong With This Picture? - with Georgie Fame. Van's old mate, sixties jazzer Georgie Fame joins him on this. It suits him perfectly. It is given a slight reggae beat and the two old friends jazz up the vocals. It is catchy and decidedly pleasant.

Rough God Goes Rising from The Healing Game - with Shana Morrison. Van's daughter provides her usual high quality vocal on this track from 1997, that it played quite similarly to its original.

Fire In The Belly from The Healing Game - with Steve Winwood. Sixties/seventies band Traffic's Steve Winwood appears on this, initially instrumentally and as the second voice to Morrison, and then they duet half way through, both singers' rasping vocals trading off again each other effectively.

Born To Sing from Born To Sing: No Plan B - with Chris Farlowe. A slightly mid-tempo rock 'n' roll piano and saxophone introduces this appealing duet with sixties blues rock legend Chris Farlowe. My god, what a voice he has. The track is enhanced by some wonderful New Orleans-style brass.

Irish Heartbeat from Down The Road - with Mark Knopfler. Suitably evocative, folky and beautiful rendition of this Celtic-influenced number. A bit of trademark Knopfler guitar in there too.

Real Real Gone from Enlightenment - with Michael Bublé. Crooner Bublé does a surprisingly fine job on this upbeat number, the two of them enthusiastically whooping it up, in entertaining fashion. The final name checking bit is excellent.

How Can A Poor Boy from Keep It Simple - with Taj Mahal. Sixties blueser Taj Mahal and Van get down 'n' dirty on this blues grinder. Mahal's voice is suitably gruff and is a great fit for the track.

This is a highly recommended, quality album.

Keep Me Singing (2016)


Let It Rhyme/Every Time I See A River/Keep Me Singing/Out in The Cold Again/Memory Lane/The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword/Holy Guardian Angel/Share Your Love With Me/In Tiburon/Look Beyond The Hill/Going Down To Bangor/Too Late/Caledonia Swing                           
If you have stuck with Van Morrison through his career, particularly since the nineties and into the new millennium, there will be nothing to surprise you about this latest album from him. It is, as always, instrumentally and sonically prefect and he just gets into his soulful groove and it washes over you like the first warm bath of autumn. This is one of his most relaxing, gentle-paced albums - still bluesy, jazzy and soulful throughout, however.

The opener, Let It Rhyme is beautiful, effortless and possessing of an addictive bass sound over a gently appealing rhythm. Van's voice is deep-ish and full of his intuitive, instinctive soul. Even more laid-back is the smooth Every Time I See A River, which is just lovely, if you like Morrison in this sort of mode. Celtic soul is gently evoked in the intoxicating Keep Me Singing - "my people got soul..". This is very much a song in the early eighties Morrison tradition. As a great nostalgic myself, I love the fact that Morrison lives almost totally in the past. He eschews innovation and experimentation, in the way that artists like David Bowie or Paul Weller have done. Not for him using some dance rhythms, or club sounds and the like. He doesn't know what they are, neither do I. He is satisfied with the blues harmonica, the tenor saxophone, the piano and the stand up jazzy bass. More power to him for doing so. Not that I mind the other approaches, though, I just admire Morrison's steadfastness.

The old self-analysis is still here too, although when he sings "I was Mr. nice guy for way too long..." on Out In The Cold Again you have to wonder if he is really talking about his notoriously irascible self. The song is slow and tender, with a plaintive, understated string and piano backing. It is one of his finest slow ballads for a long time. Memory Lane is a rustic lament about feeling sad about looking into the past too much, funnily enough, as that is what the song reflects so well. He sings of the leaves falling in November and winter coming. No-one evokes the changing of the seasons as beautifully as Van Morrison. He is living calendar as the months come and go. It has a mournful Celtic air to it, too. The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword is an insistent, bluesy jazz number full of bass, organ and some cooking blues guitar. Great stuff.


Holy Guardian Angel slows down the tempo to walking pace initially then it builds up into another one that has echoes of days gone by, this time of 1997's The Healing Game, full of call-and-response backing vocals. Share Your Love With Me is a sixties Bobby Bland and Aretha Franklin cover with rock 'n' roll echoes that again musters up memories of several previous songs in its delivery, even though it is not a Morrison original. In Tiburon (pictured) has Van reminiscing over his seventies time in California, with lots of name and place checking. It sounds like something from 1973's Hard Nose The Highway and has a lovely saxophone solo. Look Behind The Hill is a smoky, late night jazzy blues, while Going Down To Bangor is a harmonica and blues guitar-drenched repeated verse, authentic blues. This is the best slab of blues on the album.

Too Late is the most soulfully upbeat song on the album and, for me, it has hints of Avalon Sunset'Daring Night about it, while Caledonian Swing, although an instrumental,  harks back to the Celtic soul years and also Precious Time from Back On Top. This has very much been an album of looking back, while still carrying on doing what you do best. Nothing wrong with that.



Roll With The Punches (2017)


Roll With The Punches/Transformation/I Can Tell/Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue/Goin' To Chicago/Fame/Too Much Trouble/Bring It On Home To Me/Ordinary People/How Far From God/Teardrops From My Eyes/Automobile Blues/Benediction/Mean Old World/Ride On Josephine   

Jeff Beck is here. Chris FarloweGeorgie FamePaul Jones. And Van Morrison. Singing the blues. Enjoying it. Forget the Radio Two favourite of Transformation, which is the only "Van Morrison by numbers" track on here and seems to have attracted a lot of people expecting more of the same, the rest of the album is BLUES, pure and simple, and Van Morrison, a long time aficionado, plays them better than most.

This is not a nostalgia trip for Morrison, he plays the music with an enthusiasm and vitality that sounds forward-thinking as opposed to retrospective, if you get my drift. It is spontaneous and almost sounds "live", something Morrison has always been able to get from his musicians.

Roll With The Punches is a great opener, and Transformation has a great Jeff Beck guitar solo on it, although as I said before, the track sits at odds with the copper-bottomed blues on the rest of the album. It sits somewhat incongruously as the album's only commercial-sounding piece of Morrison radio fare. I Can Tell is a harmonica-driven blues and Van’s revisit to Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue is just quality. 

Listen to that big, bluesy bass. Lord have mercy. Fame is another impressive bluesed-up revisit of a previously-recorded track. Too Much Trouble takes the tone upbeat with a faster blues. Check out the guitar on Ordinary PeopleBring It On Home To Me, (which has a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo), Goin' To Chicago, the titles speak for themselves. I could list the whole lot. Great to hear Georgie Fame again, by the way. This is just such a great late night album at times.

No need for any of that old “return to form” guff. This is just a highly credible blues album by a highly credible artist, just like The Rolling Stones’ Blue And Lonesome. Both artists do this stuff effortlessly. The world is a better place for it. If you like the blues you will love this.

Versatile (2017)


Broken Record/A Foggy Day/Let's Get Lost/Bye Bye Blackbird/Skye Boat Song/Take It Easy Baby/Makin' Whoopee/I Get A Kick Out Of You/I Forgot That Love Existed/Unchained Melody/Start All Over Again/Only a Dream/Affirmation/The Party's Over/I Left My Heart in San Francisco/They Can't Take That Away From Me    
   
A couple of months on from releasing an album of storming, high quality blues covers, Van Morrison proved it was too late to stop now and put out this classy album of pre-rock n roll swing/jazz standards in an gently upbeat, drum brushes and stand up bass style with lounge bar keyboards as opposed to the more traditional, orchestrated backing associated with Sinatra and, unfortunately, countless Rod Stewart/Bradley Walsh “mothers’ day” albums. This is a much more enjoyable album of these type of songs. There is a nice late night jazzy feel to the material and Morrison’s voice always has a gruff, instantly recognisable appeal. I’m no true jazz aficionado, but this sounds good to me. In many ways, it is a fine little gem of an album.
    
Some do not care for the saxophone-driven instrumental version of The Skye Boat Song. Personally I love it. Great keyboards, nice saxophone from Morrison, nice percussion. Just very enjoyable. The much-covered Bye Bye Blackbird is impressive too, as is the silky smooth Let's Get Lost and the beautifully bassy Take It Easy Baby. Morrison’s take on I Get A Kick Out Of You is top notch. Nice to hear his new, jazzy, take on his own I Forgot That Love Existed. He doesn't quite pull off Unchained Melody, however. The opener, Broken Record, is jazzily jaunty, as is the forties/early fifties-influenced, atmospheric swing of A Foggy Day. So much of the album has that fifties London jazz sound about it. It is all most evocative. 

The sound quality on this album, by the way, is superb. It is a pleasure to listen to.

Basically, I like all the music on here. You either like it or you don’t. I liked the dirty, authentic blues of Roll With The Punches and I also liked the country of Pay The Devil. I like Van Morrison. It seems many just want him to do Bright Side Of The Road-type material and nothing else. Van Morrison is at a stage in life, indeed he always has, when he just what he feels like doing. Good for him.

You're Driving Me Crazy (2018)


Miss Otis Regrets/Hold It Right There/All Saints Day/The Way Young Lovers Do/The Things I Used To Do/Travellin' Light/Close Enough For Jazz/Goldfish Bowl/Evening Shadows/Magic Time/You're Driving Me Crazy/Everyday I Have The Blues/Have I Told You Lately/Sticks And Stones/Celtic Swing     

This is another jazz album from Van Morrison, following on from 2017's Versatile. It is a collaboration with trumpeter Joey Defrancesco. There are seven jazz cover versions and eight from Morrison's own catalogue.
                           
Miss Otis Regrets has some excellent trumpet on it, but Morrison's voice goes strangely deep in places, so much so that I thought it was someone else singing. It is a good opener though, and Hold It Right There is one of those upbeat, swinging "hard bop" jazz tunes, with lots of stand up bass and tenor saxophone. Morrison seems to nonchalantly cope with all sets of jazz tunes these days and it makes for a relaxing late night listen. Incidentally, his daughter, Shana Morrison, appears on this one. All Saints Day from Hymns To The Silence is a jaunty, lively delight and The Way Young Lovers Do from Astral Weeks is given a bassy, organ-enhanced soft swing makeover and becomes even more jazzy than the original was, with a "scat" vocal from Morrison. Both of these songs have suited their new jazzy approach down to the ground.

The Things I Used To Do has some addictive bass and an organ that swirls around all over it like  fairground Wurlitzer. The standard of musicianship on the album really is top quality, as indeed is the sound. It really is a pleasure to listen to. Travelin' Light has that deep, bluesy, bassy underpin to its slow, smoky late night rhythm. It has some seriously impressive saxophone and burbling Hammond organ on it. Close Enough For Jazz makes its third appearance on a Van Morrison album, and it is no surprise to find that this one is its most authentic jazz version. Goldfish Bowl is given a saxophone-drenched, extended new coat of paint and Morrison's bluesy griping about the pitfalls of fame are equally as convincing. Evening Shadows from Down The Road has an intoxicating saxophone riff and some lively organ doodling.


Magic Time features that strange deep voice improvisation again, that sort of sounds like bath water gurgling down the spout. Other than that, it sounds great! Back to the cover versions now with the light, airy, crooner-type song You're Driving Me Crazy, which has Van laughing and chuckling at one point. Everyday I Have the Blues is actually more upbeat than you would imagine from the title, and more jazzy than bluesy, funnily enough. Have I Told You Lately? is given a toe-tapping, saxophone and bass sheen and Shana joins her Dad again on vocals. It is nothing like the original, and there is some excellent jazz guitar on it too. I really like it.

Sticks And Stones is a fast -paced number, with a almost rock 'n' roll beat number in places, one of the liveliest on the album. The pace slows for the closer, Morrison's delicious instrumental Celtic Swing, from Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. This has been a most enjoyable album, functioning particularly well late in the evening.

The Prophet Speaks (2018)


Gotta Send You Back To Where I Got You From/Dimples/Got To Go Where The Love Is/Laughin' And Clownin'/5am Greenwich Mean Time/Got To Get You Off My Mind/Teardrops/I Love The Life I Live/Worried Blues/Rollin' And Tumblin'/Ain't Gonna Moan No More/Love Is A Five Letter Word/Love Is Hard Work/Spirit Will Provide/The Prophet Speaks    

Van Morrison seems to put albums out every six months at the moment. Just when you think you must give the previous one a third listen you get another one. Many people will no doubt dismiss this as "yet another Van Morrison album" and ask "why doesn't he retire?". Well, why should he. He enjoys doing what he does. Personally, I am really enjoying this one thus far. Yes, I accept a considerable bias, as I buy everything he puts out, but if I thought it was rubbish, I would say so. It is not. The jazzy, blues, r'nb -influenced mix of covers and six originals is a good one, reflecting both his musical roots and his wish to continue writing his own material in that style. His vocals are still superb, coping with everything his similarly impressive musicians throw at him. The sound quality is absolutely outstanding. (The album's cover is a strange one, though).

The album is basically jazz and blues, alternating from track to track and often merging the two. It washes over you for an hour as you can imagine. This is what Van Morrison does these days and he does it well. I am happy to go along with it. Others may not be. That is their choice. I make no apologies for liking the album (now on second listen).
                              
Gonna Send You Back To Where I Got You From sets the tone of the album with some typical organ-powered Morrison jazzy soul. Nothing new here, but if you have been sold on this sort of stuff for years, like me, then you will like it. Dimples sees that faithful organ swirling around all over the place again, like a smoky sixties London jazz club. Laughin' And Clownin' is trademark Morrison blues while 5am Greenwich Mean Time is jazzy blues of the type he does with his eyes shut. Yes, I know so many people will say they have heard it all before and that is certainly true. You know what you're gonna get. If you want it then that's fine. If you want something that sounds like the music he did forty-fifty years ago then you won't be satisfied.

Got To Go Where The Love Is is a Stax-ish, upbeat, bass soul/blues number. It has some killer jazz guitar and punchy Stax horns. Morrison's vocal is superb too. Check out the full, thumping bass too. No signs of ageing on this one whatsoever. I love it. Solomon Burke's Got To Get You Off My Mind is done well, with some stonking organ/bass interplay and a great vocal. Teardrops is a return to copper-bottomed blues as is Worried Blues/ Rollin' And Tumblin'. The virtuoso organ on this is wonderful. I Love The Life I Live is a back to jazz stylings once more.

Ain't Gonna Moan No More has Van facing up to his past griping and telling us he's not going to do so, over a delicious slow organ-driven melody. There is some exquisite trumpet and a jazzy organ solo. As with all the album, the musicianship is top quality. Love Is A Five Letter Word merges jazz and the blues beautifully. Love Is Hard Work  continues in the same vein, with some great jazz percussion and saxophone. 

Spirit Will Provide is a Morrison song in that laid-back soulful but jazzy style he has utilised for twenty years or more now, while The Prophet Speaks features some sumptuous Spanish-sounding guitar over its once more laid-back, jazz melody. Great bass near the end and harmonica too. It ends this enjoyable album with a suitably peerless quality. If you like Van Morrison, of course, you will like this. If you are an Astral Weeks/Moondance Van fan, then stick with those. For me, it's just too late to stop now....



Three Chords And The Truth (2019)


March Winds In February/Fame Will Eat The Soul/Dark Night Of The Soul/In Search Of Grace/Nobody In Charge/You Don't Understand/Read Between The Lines/Does Love Conquer All/Early Days/If We Wait For Mountains/Up On Broadway/Three Chords And The Truth/Bags Under My Eyes/Days Gone By   

Every year (sometimes every few months) a new Van Morrison album comes out and I realise that I haven’t properly listened to the previous one yet. So here we go again, The Prophet Speaks has only had a handful of listens and here comes a new one. To the annoyance of many of the “Astral Weeks will never be bettered” aficionados these Morrison albums do not change much, if at all. They follow a pattern begun in the eighties and they simply do not deviate. As I have said in my reviews of the last few Morrison albums (probably the last twenty or so!), if you like this sort of material then you will like the album. If it frustrates you then it will continue to do so. Three listens in for me and I have enjoyed all three, but then I would. Be thankful he hasn't released an album of Christmas standards! Even Eric Clapton and Dylan have done that.
                                                  
March Winds In February explores a theme Morrison often visits - the changing of the seasons. No-one expresses this sort of thing quite like him, or even bothers to. He has always had a strong sense of the bucolic, of nature and the way things simply are, as he might say. The lyrics are delivered over a typical, slowly appealing instrumentation that could have been lifted from any of his albums over the last thirty odd years, from the eighties onwards. Van doesn’t change too much, either musically, lyrically or thematically and personally I don’t want him to. I can understand, however, those for whom it is all a bit samey.

Another of Van’s favourite topics is the “fame game” and its attendant pitfalls. Here he lets out his frustrations on Fame Will Eat The Soul. Van has been ranting on about this for many, many years. He does it so well here, though - supremely soulfully over a sumptuous organ-driven backing. It has echoes of the material on The Healing Game, particularly in Van’s call and response interaction with his male backing vocalist (Righteous Brother Bill Medley) No matter whether it is the same old moan, Van lifts it all up effortlessly. Dark Night Of The Soul is a beautiful, laid-back slice of archetypal Morrison soul. I can’t say too much more than it is a lovely track and if you like what Morrison has been putting out in this style for thirty years then you will lap it up. In fact, there are hints of some of his 1974 Veedon Fleece material about it.

In Search Of Grace ploughs the same furrow, sumptuously, with a nice bass line and organ. Van gets sad, reflective and nostalgic with a sad tale from “somewhere between 67 or 8”. I am not sure who Grace is he is referring to, maybe I should. It is time for one of those slightly upbeat jazzy, bluesy numbers and we get it on the easy strains of Nobody In Charge. There is some nice guitar ad saxophone on here too. Lyrically, it is a contemporaneously popular moan about politicians being lazy - we've heard this too many times and for me this is a lazy lyric, if anything.

You Don’t Understand has Morrison moaning about all that “skullduggery” that he has been done to him. It’s all the fault of fame of course. Once again, it is delivered so well, over a late night jazz backing that one forgets about the perennial griping. We don’t understand how bad it’s been for you, Van - “how mad, bad and dangerous some people can be..”. Just keep putting out the albums.

Read Between The Lines is one of the album’s more poppy, commercial numbers in that Precious Time/Once In A Blue Moon sort of way, with its jaunty organ and Van getting all enthusiastic. Does Love Conquer All is a gently attractive soulful number while Early Days harks back to the You Win Again album with an upbeat bit of boogie boogie piano-driven nostalgia. It beaks the mould quite a bit and the album is the better for it. If We Wait For Mountains is a short but sweet reflection of nature and love. Another fine organ break enhances the track.



Up On Broadway is a lengthy, soulful vocal and gentle organ backed slowie with Van wanting to up on Broadway, wistfully. If he is talking about New York, I can’t see why, it’s just a busy city street. (Actually, I read somewhere that he is talking about San Francisco). Three Chords And The Truth is a good one - full of more infectious rhythms than Morrison usually employs. There is some excellent piano on it too. Bags Under My Eyes is a slow, acoustic number with a bluesy lyric. Van reflects on his ageing in disarming fashion. On every Van Morrison album there is one track that just takes you high up to Morrison nirvana and here it comes with the album’s closer Days Gone By. Great stuff. Take me home Van.

Listen to this last track if you need any justification as to why Morrison keeps doing it. It’s too late for him to stop now. (I'm always using that quote - it's tailor-made).

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