The dizzying highs and stomach-churning lows of a forty-five year career.
Van Morrison has proven to be the most prolific of the mid-'60s rock stars, averaging a new effort every year and a half for forty-five years. This week sees the first new Van Morrison album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, in a record four years. So we're talking a look back at Morrison's hulking discography, before he makes it any bigger.
33. Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983)
Fresh from a flirtation with Scientology, Morrison included a "special thanks" to L. Ron Hubbard in the liner notes for this album. Hubbard isn't exactly known for inspiring people to make good decisions; maybe that explains why Morrison stuffed this album with instrumentals. Robbed of his two greatest assets — his voice and lyrics — Morrison has little to offer. "Cry for Home" is the only track with any oomph.
32. Common One (1980)
The line between good Van Morrison and bad Van Morrison is thin. When inspiration is missing, looseness can turn to sloppiness, loftiness can become pretentiousness, and lack of commercial appeal can be an excuse for lack of appeal, period. Case in point: Common One, a turgid attempt to recreate Astral Weeks that delivers six snooze-worthy tracks over fifty-five minutes. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis adds a little life to "Haunts of Ancient Peace."
31. You Win Again (2000)
You've got to give credit to Linda Gail Lewis, who sings with the same Southern grit as her more famous brother, Jerry Lee; it takes brass to sing alongside a voice as robust and familiar as Morrison's for forty-two minutes. Still, the two seemed to think rollicking old songs from Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Jerry Lee himself would work as duets between two old people. It turns out they do not.
30. Hard Nose the Highway (1973)
Here's a phrase that should inspire suspicion: "complete creative control." Morrison cut this record in a home studio, sequestered from record-label influences, so no one could tell him an ode to fall weather didn't need to be ten minutes long, or that he'd sound unintentionally hilarious covering Kermit the Frog's famous "Bein' Green."
29. Poetic Champions Compose (1987)
Morrison's whole New Age seeker thing and jazz leanings both get soupy on the ridiculously titled Poetic Champions Compose. Though "Did Ye Get Healed" and "Queen of the Slipstream" contain a few fine "Into the Mystic"-isms, the melodies seem paced for a supermarket's PA.
28. Irish Heartbeat (1988)
Irish singer/songwriter Morrison teamed up with Celtic band The Chieftains for an album of traditional Irish songs called Irish Heartbeat. If that sounds corny, that's only because it is. While a bunch of supremely talented Irish guys playing national standards like "Star of the County Down" and "She Moved Through the Fair" is never a bad thing, this primer of Celtic-ism doesn't tap far into either party's range.
27. Hymns to the Silence (1991)
Oddly, Morrison didn't seem to have any big plans when he cut his first double album. Hymns to the Silence is just a velvety double dose of the remembering-days-of-old-this and deep-spiritual-craving-that that had been making it onto every release. I can't say he does anything wrong, but I'm also hard-pressed to remember any unique detail about it an hour after listening to it.
26. Back on Top (1999)
An R&B-ish album set at a toe-tapping pace, Back on Top is fairly nondescript within Morrison's catalogue, even if this style has always fitted Morrison like a glove. The standout track, "Precious Time," puts some rhythm to the realization that death is certain.
25. A Period of Transition (1977)
Returning after two years of writer's block, Morrison seemed to tell fans not to get too excited with a title like A Period of Transition. The album is slow, smooth, and well-crafted, but lacks the primal energy of the work he was putting out just five years prior. Still, "The Eternal Kansas City" has a great hook.
24. How Long Has This Been Going On? (1996)
Morrison once spent a pleasant afternoon performing a handful of his old songs and some jazz and pre-rock pop standards with a band of longtime friends. Venerable jazz label Verve put out the recordings, with no second takes or overdubs. How Long Has This Been Going On? is, by design, nothing spectacular, but it's obvious songs like "Blues in the Night" and "That's Life" are close to Morrison's heart.
23. A Sense of Wonder (1985)
There is some impressively heady stuff on A Sense of Wonder — Blake quotes, mysticism, a reference to French wordsmith-cum-arms dealer Arthur Rimbaud put into a catchy chorus — but musically, it's mercilessly slow and basic. Even the crescendos come in expected places.
22. Wavelength (1978)
Every '60s rock star who made it to the late '70s has one unfortunate synthesizer album to show for it (think Trans or In Through the Out Door), even the generally organic Morrison. There are some mighty, uproarious songs on Wavelength, particularly the title track and "Kingdom Hall," so at times you can ignore or forgive the off-putting buzzing of the machinery (played on some tracks by Garth Hudson of The Band, who really should have known better).
21. Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison (1996)
Morrison's other one-day recording for Verve consists of covers of jazz pianist/singer/songwriter Mose Allison (with Allison present). Again, he sets the bar low, but by the end of the disc, Morrison and friends make a convincing case that Allison is a man of talent and wit. I'm pretty sure "Benediction," covered here, is a tribute to masturbation. ("There's just one thing baby / That comes from above / When push comes to shove / Thank God for self love.")
20. What's Wrong With This Picture? (2003)
Morrison got as throwbacky as he's ever gotten on What's Wrong With This Picture? On songs like "Evening in June" and "Once in a Blue Moon," he shows great ease with a format that doesn't veer far from classic vocal jazz, and proves he totally could have ruled a old-timey nightclub, even if the songs don't have much of his unique stamp on them.
19. His Band and the Street Choir (1970)
His Band and the Street Choir features the same warm alchemy of R&B, jazz, and folk as Moondance, but having delivered Moondance just nine months prior, Morrison evidently didn't have much left in the can. The opening "Domino" is an energetic soul romp, and the closing "Street Choir" recaptures Moondance's sweet full-band liveliness. Everything in between sounds exasperated.
18. Magic Time (2005)
Still working with a lite-jazz backing that makes an hour-long album a bit of a test in patience, Morrison nonetheless shows he's still in the game as a songwriter on Magic Time. His odes to isolation, "Stranded" and "Just like Greta," are some of his strongest compositions of the '00s. Also, he finds a spirit animal on "The Lion This Time."
17. Keep It Simple (2008)
Much about Magic Time also applies to its successor, Keep It Simple. The tempo rarely speeds up much, but if you're patient, you can hear Morrison get mean with the world at large on "School of Hard Knocks," and give his manifesto on the power of music on "That's Entrainment."
16. Enlightenment (1990)
Even if the title track was named in irony ("enlightenment, don't know what it is"), Morrison does find a deep sense of reflective calm on Enlightenment. But it's a calm with spirit, embodied in the way he jumps all over himself to sing the lines "so quiet in here, so peaceful in here" on one track.
15. Days Like This (1995)
On Days Like This, lyrics seem secondary. (Did he really just say "Call me rain check" in the chorus of one song? What does that even mean?) But the title track is his most catchy single since "Jackie Wilson Said," and though there isn't much to it but a strong melody and some optimistic lyrics, it became an anthem for the Northern Ireland peace process.
14. Pay the Devil (2006)
Having mined jazz, blues, early rock and roll, pre-rock pop, Irish folk, and some of his own greatest hits to keep up his nearly album-a-year schedule, Morrison turned to vintage country. Everything about Pay the Devil is lovingly familiar, from the songs of Hank Williams and Bill Anderson to the replication of the classic Nashville sound to a voice that hasn't changed in forty years. But Morrison moving out of his usual range of genres was enough to make things more interesting than usual.
13. Too Long in Exile (1993)
Morrison hates overdubs or any form of self-editing. This is especially noticeable on Too Long in Exile, a messy seventy-seven-minute effort on which Georgie Fame's Hammond organ simmers long and slow through every track. It features everything from a Yeats poem set to music to a rerecording of "Gloria" with John Lee Hooker. It's good, but some self-control could have made it great.
12. Avalon Sunset (1989)
If you ask me, Morrison's best song is not "Gloria" or "Brown-Eyed Girl" or "Moondance" or anything off Astral Weeks; it's "Orangefield," a blip of a single released a good decade after his classic period. With a sweeping orchestra working in perfect cahoots with one jangley guitar, it tells of one long-remembered sunny afternoon, and it's Morrison doing only what Morrison can do: searing his own lucid memories into the mind of a listener through sublime force of will. The rest of Avalon Sunset is typical '80s Morrison, except for "Have I Told You Lately?," an unexpected rush for Barry Manilow territory. I hate it. Wedding DJs love it.
11. No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
We're lucky no church ever snagged Morrison for long. No proselytizer would never be able to utilize the Book of Genesis with as much ease and beauty as Morrison does in "In the Garden." His most overtly spiritual album is deeply felt and sturdily written.
10. Blowin' Your Mind (1967)
Morrison's debut contains his most palpable hit, the ubiquitous "Brown-Eyed Girl," but "T.B. Sheets," a nine-minute dispatch from a lover's sickbed (which also happens to be a killer blues guitar workout) showed he was already aiming for something more lofty than pop gold. The rest fits into his short-lived group Them's excellent proto-garage sound.
9. Down the Road (2002)
Just when some cigar-breathed record executive was probably trying to get him to do a Supernatural-style monstrosity with guest appearances by Nelly Furtado and Moby, Morrison dropped this superb disc, the best from his easygoing nostalgia period. Down the Road includes a handful of songs, including "Hey Mr. DJ" and "Meet Me in the Indian Summer," that count as some of the best straightforward soul-rock he has ever recorded.
8. Beautiful Vision (1982)
Morrison and George Harrison are the only songwriters to make stirring music out of vague, pantheistic concepts of God. This aspect of his work is central to Beautiful Vision. "Dweller on the Threshold" and "Aryan Mist" are two of his most sublime songs, while "Cleaning Windows" (really about cleaning windows) and "Vanlose Staircase" (a tribute to an actual staircase) find the transcendental in everyday life.
7. The Healing Game (1997)
After a few unambitious efforts, the pilgrim-poet in Morrison briefly roared back to life here. Everything about The Healing Game is meaty, from the swinging saxophones and bellowing backup singers to the deep human sentiment of "Sometimes We Cry" to nearly apocalyptic visions of "Rough God Goes Riding" and "The Burning Ground" (which Morrison delivers with assertiveness). Yes, the older Morrison is stylistically unadventurous. But The Healing Game shows the power of substance over style.
6. Saint Dominic's Preview (1972)
Though opened by the irresistibly bouncy single "Jackie Wilson Said," Saint Dominic's Preview was Morrison's first attempt at a new Astral Weeks and the closest he ever came to achieving it. He stumbles a bit on the two ten-minute-plus numbers, but it's great to hear him once again so taken by the powers of his raw consciousness and the mechanics of his acoustic guitar. On the title track, a cityscape painted in lyrical hues borrowed from Blonde on Blonde, everyone in the band really works for their paycheck.
5. Into the Music (1979)
As a bandleader, Morrison has a knack for making dozen-person groups sound like one well-trained beast with twenty-four arms. There's no better example than Into the Music. That's Ry Cooder on "Full Force Gale," but you'd never know a flashy slide guitarist was on board, since the track is so overall thick and energetic. The second half features some of Morrison's most dizzying displays as a vocalist.
4. Veedon Fleece (1974)
After Morrison and his first wife divorced, he (of course) holed up and wrote a wounded-sounding album of catharsis. Also in accordance with rock cliché, that album turned out to be one of the best, most emotionally charged entries in his catalogue. Just like Blood on the Tracks or Rumours, Veedon Fleece is as filled with mixed, sometimes contradictory emotions. Morrison bubbles over with residual warmth in "Bulbs," but croons through his loneliness on "Who Was That Masked Man?" The best track is "Streets of Arklow," which turns his obsession with getting lost in his surroundings into a soul-kicking feeling of autonomy, driven home by a forlorn recorder.
3. Tupelo Honey (1971)
With Tupelo Honey, Morrison proved he could sing American rhythm and blues better than most actual Americans, be it on a song as gentle as "Old Woodstock" or as frenzied as "Moonshine Whisky." "Wild Night," an ode to the power of rhythm itself, is one of his crown jewels, and if there's any part of your emotional makeup that can be moved by a love-struck pop song, the title track (in which he literally sings about something sappy) should do the trick. There's a emotional undercurrent to every song on Tupelo Honey, which puts it ahead of the albums on which Morrison merely showed a black-belt mastery of this sound.
2. Moondance (1970)
"We were born before the wind / Also younger than the sun," Morrison croons in the opening of his seminal "Into the Mystic." From the lunar fever of the title track to the summer rain recalled in "And It Stoned Me," Moondance is full of references to the power of nature. The album itself seems like an elemental force, a whirlwind of jazzy saxophones, soulful vocals, and acoustic guitars purring like cicadas. The above-mentioned songs are standouts, but for thirty-eight minutes and fourteen seconds, Moondance doesn't miss a single beat, showing twenty-five-year-old Morrison as the master of a vast domain of modernized Celtic folk and Anglicized jazz and R&B.
1. Astral Weeks (1968)
Kept out of the studio for months due to a dispute with his former label, Morrison had a backlog of great material, when he finally scored three sessions with some jazz session musicians in New York City in the fall of 1968. The eight free-flowing tracks of Astral Weeks bear no marks of era or genre. The lyrics effortlessly move between memory, thought, and passion, but most importantly, you can feel them. When Morrison sings of "the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream where immobile steel rims crack," he doesn't sound like a poetry student trying to wow a professor, but a man lost on some psychic plane, trying to navigate his way home. There are a lot of descriptive details on Astral Weeks, and it wouldn't fully articulate their effect to say Morrison made Cypress Avenue seem like a real place or Madame George like a real person. He did one better and made them both seem like they forever exist in some dream state accessible only through listening to a record. If Dylan hadn't already, Astral Weeks proved rock could be as literary as beatnik poetry, because only rock and roll could light words on fire the way Morrison did here.