Sunday, 4 October 2020

Van Morrison - We'll Walk Down The Avenue Again (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 the legendary 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 Rayhe 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 Fleece

Dweller 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 Visionis 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 and soothing 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 Swing

Higher 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, 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 Street

Oh 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. I pretty much say that for all Van's albums, don't I? It's true though, they are.

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