A musically expansive singer/songwriter whose work fuses jazz, soul, pop and folk, Van Morrison is also one of contemporary music’s few properly gifted lyricists. On the eve of a long-term reissue campaign, David Davies attempts to make sense of Van the Man’s frankly vast back catalogue.
Born in Belfast shortly after the end of WWII to a shipyard worker (George) and former singer/tap dancer (Violet), Van Morrison was exposed to a variety of musical styles from an early age. Jazz, country, blues, skiffle and classical all played a part in his formative years, helping to birth a passion for music that led him to begin guitar and saxophone lessons in his early teens. In possession of an increasingly robust voice able to run the gamut from soulful crooning to a full-on, hollering rasp, Morrison soon became involved in the local music scene, assuming a much higher profile in the mid ‘60s as singer and songwriter with the powerful but short-lived Them, best-remembered now for euphoric blues-rock shouter ‘Gloria’..
While ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ got Van’s solo career off to a strong start in 1967, the ensuing two years were more challenging. A dispute with the widow of former producer and Bang Records chief Bert Berns restricted Morrison’s ability to play live, leading to a frustrating and financially-stricken period that finally came to an end when new home Warner Bros bought out his Bang contract and Van fulfilled an outstanding requirement for 30-plus original tunes – a demand that he was able to meet by taping a sequence of brief, improvised comic songs that, in addition to often being simply laugh-out-loud funny, serve to nicely undermine the enduring media image of Van as a humour-free curmudgeon. (Sample the likes of ‘Up Your Mind’ and the seminal ‘Ring Worm’ at
Admittedly, these fragments of whimsy had very little in common with Van’s Warners debut – the ambitious but overrated Astral Weeks (1968). Even that album’s keenest advocates, however, would have to concede that the following release – 1970’s Moondance – was more significant in terms of establishing a precedent for Morrison’s future career. Touching on many of the subjects – notably the search for a fulfilling personal belief system – that would define Morrison’s career, the ten tightly-arranged tunes also crystallised his unique blend of pop, folk, soul and jazz. While His Band and the Street Choir was less consistent, 1971’s Tupelo Honey was a first-rate collection launched into life by the swinging jazz-pop of ‘Wild Night’.
As things turned out, it was merely the opening statement in a five-album run of greatness rivalled in the early ‘70s by only Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell. Contrasting punchy pop-soul gems (‘Jackie Wilson Said’) with extended reveries (‘Listen to the Lion’), 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview was followed by Hard Nose the Highway and It’s Too Late To Stop Now, the latter proving to be one of the all-time great live albums. The next studio set, Veedon Fleece, possesses a poised, haunting feel unlike anything else in his back catalogue, and should be a priority purchase for Van newbies. A three-year retreat from the music scene ensued, terminated by 1977’s patchy A Period of Transition. Wavelength and Into the Music were much stronger but arguably outshone by 1980’s Common One – another creative high-point that, perhaps because of two ‘difficult’ 15-minute epics, is often overlooked. Ravishing opener ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’ and R&B workout ‘Satisfied’ provide more accessible entry-points to an album that is overdue a reappraisal.
More prolific than ever, Van kept ‘em coming throughout the ‘80s, re-exploring Celtic mysticism on Beautiful Vision and dabbling with synths on the for-hardcore-fans-only Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. If the latter hinted at a creative impasse, the following three albums – A Sense of Wonder, No Guru No Method No Teacher and Poetic Champions Compose – provided elegant evidence to the contrary. Be it tackling William Blake on ‘Let the Slave’ (ASoW) or revisiting the ambience of Astral Weeks for ‘In the Garden’ (NGNMNT), Morrison was operating at the peak of his powers once again.
Covering the two decades since is more problematic. In recent years, there has often been the suspicion that Van might have benefited from holding back to deliver less frequent but truly dazzling collections, rather than a long run of albums boasting just a few great moments apiece. Several releases – notably Hymns to the Silence (‘91) and Back On Top (‘99) – have had a higher strike-rate, but it would be an ardent fan indeed who was willing to argue the case for, say, Too Long In Exile. Finally, in 2005, Van did deliver another consistently first-rate album – Magic Time.
The three years since have witnessed a slew of compilations (the 3CD version of Still on Top is recommended) and a detour into country (Pay the Devil). With a new studio album due for release this spring, there is no sign that Van intends to hang up his fedora any time soon. However, a long-term reissue campaign that will span Tupelo Honey and 2002’s Down the Road, and beginning this month with seven titles drawn from across Morrison’s career, affords a welcome opportunity to listen anew to an extraordinarily varied body of work rich in poetry, musical drama and frequent flashes of genius.
Tupelo Honey, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Wavelength, Into the Music, A Sense of Wonder, Avalon Sunset and Back On Top are reissued with extra tracks by Exile/Polydor/Universal on January 28. Van’s new album, Keep It Simple, is due for release by Lost Highway in March.