Right, so inspired by @StewartWood @thomasmessenger and @wb_gooderham amongst others, I am starting a lockdown listening project. I will be listening to the entire Van Morrison back catalogue starting today, one album per day.
With respect to Them, I’m limiting it to solo Van plus collaborations. I am including live albums because some of them are crucial. It’s going to become a bit of a chore towards the end, I know (particularly listening to those four standards albums in succession!).
Kicking off with Blowin’ Your Mind right now!
I’m going to warn you all now that I don’t think I will be able to condense my thoughts on each album into one pithy tweet! So it may be two tweets per album.
BLOWIN’ YOUR MIND (1967): Compiled by Bert Berns without consent and infamously resented by Van, but even his official website now accepts this as a debut album. Much closer to the blues than to psychedelia, only the naivety of Brown Eyed Girl really hints at the Summer of Love.
Elsewhere, there’s the disconcerting snarl of He Ain’t Give You None, the stoical relentlessness Of TB Sheets and the frankly uncomfortable Spanish Rose. Plenty of crisp playing but only ...Red Sports Car reaches a peak of intensity.
It’s a reasonably effective product but much more akin to early 60s singles sets than the dawning era of albums as concepts. What came next would of course very quickly expose its limitations. (6/10)
ASTRAL WEEKS (1968): “If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream...” A near perfect balancing of poetry and music, one of the great examples of extemporisation outside of jazz and a brilliantly textured recording.
The acoustic instrumentation not only creates a mood but also provides space for Morrison to twist and stretch his own melodies. Richard Davis’ powerfully resonant bass is crucial to the music’s sound and impact.
The foundations of the songs are striking in their simplicity, but the expression and development from Morrison and the superb ensemble transport them to a mysterious, spiritual level. Morrison sounds like a completely different singer from the one who made ‘Blowin’ Your Mind!’
He’s not merely invested in the material, he inhabits it completely and elevates it. ‘Madame George’ is one of his clearest and most nuanced vocal deliveries. Overall, pastoral evocation and romantic swoon combine to create something deeply enriching and completely singular.
‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ either provides jaunty, breezy respite or jars slightly against a set otherwise so conceptually and sonically unified, depending on one’s mood at the time of listening.
Fascinating, too, that this masterful record was recorded in Sep-Oct ‘68 and on sale by November - pretty unthinkable now even in an era of online ‘drops’. The intangible beauty of this music remains timeless and will long outlive its creators.
For a while, this album’s somewhat delayed influence and legacy came to overshadow much of what came after it - something I find to be more than a little unfair, however unique a statement it may be. (9/10)
MOONDANCE (1970): “I had to forget about the artistic thing, because it didn’t make sense on a practical level. One has to live.” Morrison’s most accessible and well regarded songs, maybe slightly blunted by over familiarity (the Michael Buble take on Crazy Love hasn’t helped).
The title track is Morrison’s clearest and most effective attempt at a new jazz standard but is actually a somewhat misleading calling card for the rest of the album.
This is really his first exploration of the sound that would later become known as Caledonia Soul, and the music here emphasises melody, depth of feeling, the enhancements of great horn arrangements and a sense of wonder and longing.
There are so many memorable elements - the backing vocal chorus on Crazy Love, the rolling and joyful effervescence of Caravan (which would be taken to higher levels of intensity in concert), the fleet footed rhythmic patter of Come Running (great horns here too)....
...the piercing beauty of Brand New Day. Everything feels natural and effortless, only Everyone perhaps veers into forced jauntiness. The key song is Into The Mystic, as an encapsulation of Morrison’s persistent striving for something ineffable and transcendent.
If Moondance was a pragmatic compromise with Morrison’s freer artistic impulses, it was a successful one, enabling him to be a commercial prospect and finding a communicative vehicle for his celebratory music. It set the direction and tone for the future. (8/10)
HIS BAND AND THE STREET CHOIR (1970): Apparently Morrison’s second album of 1970 was originally intended to have been recorded accapella with a choir. That is something I would really be interested to hear! (I think demos exist - have they been released anywhere?)
I can hear how some songs could work in this way - Virgo Fools for example?
In the end this is a much more conventional and less exquisitely joyful take on blues and soul influences than Moondance, although it often has a freewheeling energy that is infectious.
The best songs have standard-like qualities and a pervasive influence. Steely Dan must have listened to Domino before constructing My Old School and, although the link is more tenuous, it’s hard not to hear Crazy Face In Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love. Street Choir is glorious.
We also hear a bit more evidence of Morrison’s own influences, with Gypsy Queen openly channelling Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. If I Ever Needed Someone hunts at Sam Cooke. James Brown is ever-present everywhere.
I like the rough edges here - the directions to the band on Domino, the “how was that?” at the end of the balm of I’ll Be Your Lover, Too and the “is that a take?” left in after Give Me A Kiss - these provide an earthier flipside to Moondance’s mysticism and transcendence.
We also get the first recorded example of Morrison’s saxophone playing since Them. I have to confess this is something I am not really a fan of - his tone is harsh to my ears and remains so today.
It has to be conceded that this is a much less poetic and transporting work than its two immediate predecessors, with more pared down and sometimes lightweight lyrics and an abundance of a limited take on shuffle blues. Not top tier, then, but there is gold within. (6/10)
TUPELO HONEY (1971): Written in splendid isolation in Woodstock (how appropriate for this moment!) and perhaps partially inspired by The Band, Tupelo Honey is perhaps the most contended and cocooned of Morrison’s 70s albums.
The rustic arrangements share DNA with the Dylan of Nashville Skyline or Self Portrait. The stirring Old Old Woodstock and gently agile Starting A New Life perhaps best encapsulate the mood and spirit of the album. The phrasing and tempo changes of Moonshine Whisky are gripping.
Again, there are blues and soul flourishes alongside the country flavour, but Morrison’s vocals are more expressive here than on most of ...Street Choir and he is once again able to elevate the material from its simple foundations.
Wild Night is a close relation of Domino and one of his strongest singles. Tupelo Honey itself is an effortless masterpiece, sugary but also graceful in its movement and development. It seems to float over Connie Kay’s uplifting snare syncopations and intensifying hi hats.
Morrison presumably chose You’re My Woman over Listen To The Lion because it made for a better fit with the rest of this material - fortunately, this album’s loss is very much the next one’s gain.
We still have some moments of lightweight fluff (the less said about I Wanna Roo You the better) and while it’s an unassuming record, it’s undeniably comforting. In spite of being hastily assembled when the recording location changed, the ensemble is superb. (7/10)
SAINT DOMINIC’S PREVIEW (1972): A mix of sessions and players leads to an album of distinct styles but one which is somehow not incoherent. The rhythm and blues moments feel spirited and committed (Jackie Wilson Said is a deft and inspired homage).
Elsewhere, there’s a return to the textural and extemporising approaches of Astral Weeks. The extraordinary Listen To The Lion (from the Tupelo Honey sessions, where it would have stuck out more) is entrancing, and blessed with an imaginative and unusual vocal performance.
It’s also a brilliant example of how to build something powerful, intense and substantial from the most simple and direct of lyrical ideas - Morrison becoming the very symbol he has created with growling interactions with his small vocal chorus.
Almost Independence Day patiently unfolds and expands, its use of a Moog synthesiser ushering in a different and refreshing sound world and Van offering a new kind of parlando delivery. Dynamics are crucial in these protracted songs.
The album effectively explores contrasts between long and short forms, texture and rhythm, written melody and improvisation. (8/10)
HARD NOSE THE HIGHWAY (1973): A somewhat bizarre sidestep after St Dominic’s Preview found him grasping for the transcendent again. It’s the first of the Warner albums to include covers and it focuses firmly on Morrison’s desires to inhabit the jazz and blues traditions.
The syrupy but soulful string laden rendition of Purple Heather (Wild Mountain Thyme) that closes the album is fine but never quite reaches the exultant heights of which Morrison is capable.
Morrison uses a version of Bein’ Green as a means to assert his possibly unfashionable divergence from the counterculture, a notion given more snarly embodiment in the striking attack on the ‘plastic revolutionaries’ who ‘take the money and run’ in The Great Deception.
Snow In San Anselmo is a genuine oddity, its beautiful ballad verses lurching awkwardly into uptempo swing sections that find saxophone improvisation doing battle with the Oakland Symphony Chorus. It feels excessive but the central vocal melody is delightful.
Elsewhere, Morrison is firmly encamped in a smooth interpretation of jazz that lacks interaction, particularly on Wild Children (intriguing lyrically in its depiction of childhood and adolescence - returning soldiers, Marlon and Brando and James Dean) and on Autumn Song.
The excellent title track is bolstered by an effective horn arrangement and brilliantly executed dynamic contrasts. And then there’s Warm Love - such an agile and melodically intuitive song, fully deserving its status in the canon.
Overall, though, this is a somewhat awkward and curious album that lacks a coherent identity and purpose. (6/10)
IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW (1974): One of the best live albums ever recorded, and right up with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour for visceral intensity. Morrison’s vocal phrasing is at its most adept - he drives the band but they also support and push him too. Everyone takes risks.
Morrison’s lesser songs (I’ve Been Working especially) are injected with new conviction and everything is delivered with soul revue/prayer meeting style gusto and played with tremendous energy. Band members are often allowed to stretch out in a way he rarely permits today.
There are covers that succeed in being both respectful and individual takes on blues and soul (Sam Cooke, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon). Morrison’s take on Bring It On Home To Me simmers deliciously.
The home stretch is particularly dizzying - with Morrison seemingly happy delivering the Them hits righteously. Better still are a thrilling, exhilarating extended take on Caravan and the majestic set closer Cyprus Avenue.
The original two record set does have some curious choices. Insisting on presenting takes as delivered live, Morrison apparently omitted Moondance due to dissatisfaction with a single guitar note. The comprehensive five disc deluxe reissue from 2016 is therefore essential. (9/10)
VEEDON FLEECE (1974): A reflective contrast to the intensity of It's Too Late To Stop Now and a justified fan favourite. It's subtle and sometimes understated, so perhaps it's not too hard to see why it was initially under-appreciated by some critics.
However, the extent to which Morrison himself appears to have disowned it is genuinely perplexing. It would be a three year gap until the next album and he would only perform these songs live very rarely.
Once again, Morrison found a new distinctive hybrid sound here, through which jazz, blues and folk influences are absorbed but no longer feel like traditions he needs to respect. Instead, he gives full flight to poetry and the music feels malleable and free.
Unlike its immediate studio predecessors, Veedon Fleece feels rich in imagery and coherent in both sound and purpose. You can feel and hear the air in these recordings.
The arrangements are lush but controlled, with strings used for colour and texture and the regular presence of the flute capturing the influence of his visit to Ireland. Dahaud Shaar's drums, frequently played with brushes, and David Hayes' bass create a light propulsion.
Some of Morrison's most unusual and striking vocal performances are here, not least on the sublime segue of Linden Arden Stole The Highlights into Who Was That Masked Man. The snarls and growls at the end of Cul De Sac are bizarre.
Then there is something as breathtakingly simple and affecting as Comfort You, a deep cut as good as any of the 'hits'. Morrison's more expansive tendencies are given brilliant free reign on You Don't Pull No Punches But You Don't Push The River.
In recent years, this has become one of two Morrison albums I particularly like to return to (the other one is yet to come). It is, in its own way, as vibrant and mysterious a work as Astral Weeks - an album with a beautiful landscape entirely of its own. (9/10)
A PERIOD OF TRANSITION (1977): Arriving 2.5 years after Veedon Fleece, A Period Of Transition seemed to underwhelm people and remains one of the more overlooked albums in Morrison's catalogue. It's certainly remarkable how different it is in tone and style from Veedon Fleece.
It's not his most substantial work by any means but fortunately there is plenty to enjoy here. First of all, there's the immense surprise in hearing Morrison leading what can only be described as a funk groove on You Gotta Make It Through The World. Great horns on this too.
One of Morrison's greatest gifts as a singer-songwriter is penning energising, uplifting songs for troubled times, songs that can drag you out of the fog and into the light. This is one of them. I also find The Eternal Kansas City absurdly enjoyable, albeit somewhat cheesy.
There's also material that is pleasant enough but far from major (Joyous Sound - an apt description for Morrison's music generally - and Heavy Connection where the horn chart is less interesting), or thoroughly leaden (It Fills You Up).
Flamingos Fly is also an entertaining and uplifting song. Perhaps the most notable thing about the album is the guest presence of the great Dr John - mostly on piano and keys but also on guitar on It Fills You Up.
It's certainly intriguing to see Morrison move in a more groove-orientated direction, even if it's not consistently successful. A Period Of Transition is also further evidence for my instinct that none of Morrison's 70s albums are actively bad or without merit. (6/10)
WAVELENGTH (1978): Another now mostly neglected LP, although it was apparently his biggest seller at the time. It's again a fascinating detour. The horns are gone, as are the grooves, this time in favour of a glossy 70s rock/pop sound.
The production sheen now dates it somewhat, and it certainly sounds like an attempt to sound as little like what anyone might expect from Van Morrison as possible. It sounds of a piece with another 78 detour, Bob Dylan's Street Legal.
Electric guitars and electric keyboards predominate, with lead guitars often handling as much of the melodic material as the voice, with the vocals too often disintegrating into nananana, dumdiddydum or doodahdoo type choruses. There are hints of Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac
If Dr John was the intriguing presence on A Period Of Transition, here it's The Band's commanding multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. Sometimes his contribution is hypnotic but it is also frequently intrusive.
Highlights are the driving opener Kingdom Hall and the patiently unravelling Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession. As so often, he also finishes the album with a moment of gleaming beauty in Take It Where You Find It, albeit one which retreads familiar melodic and harmonic ground.
In fact, Take It Where You Find It may be the album's most important as well as most poignant song, with its 'lost dreams and found dreams in America' and 'change come over' lyrics. While the musical content may be recognisable, thematically it looks forward to renewal.
Even here, though, it feels like Morrison is competing with the overcooked arrangement. The title track has a restorative energy but the burbling synths are again an irritation. But for an album predicated on AM pop, too much of it is nondescript and unmemorable.
Wavelength is intriguing as an outlier, but it's certainly my least favourite of Morrison's 70s works. There's a sense of Morrison trying to inhabit a world that isn't quite his natural space. Fortunately, we are only a step away from renewed artistic triumph. (5/10)
INTO THE MUSIC (1979): "This is where I got back into it. That's why I called it that." Perhaps the most reflexively self-referential album title of all time, named after a biography itself inspired by the title of a key earlier song (Into The Mystic).
There is indeed a sense of Van getting back to a space that is more his own, enhanced by a spirituality and a sense of place. He's "listening for that spiritual something" on You Make Me Feel So Free and specifically channelling Christianity on Full Force Gale and Rolling Hills.
We tend to think of Bright Side Of The Road (a joyful and open reversal of Dark End Of The Street) as a hit but it in fact only reached 63 on the UK singles chart. It's celebratory spirit encapsulates the album, greatly bolstered by Pee Wee Ellis' wonderful horn arrangement.
The album's first half combines the searching, transcendent power of songwriting with mostly concise, accessible forms. Troubadours is particularly great - exploring the historical role of singers and their songs.
The second half stretches out more, with a sense of yearning as well as spirituality. Whether intentionally or not, And The Healing Has Begun initiated one of the great themes of Morrison's career. The 'healing' would continue in some way or other for the next few decades.
And The Healing Has Begun combines the sacred and profane (occasionally, it has to be admitted, with a degree of awkwardness) and is one of the great examples of an ensemble drawing great intensity from just three chords.
It's All In The Game is one of Morrison's great covers - a deep and impassioned interpretation in which he makes the song completely his own. The second half of this album (and what came later) was clearly a big influence on Kevin Rowland's approach to Don't Stand Me Down.
The jovial and jolly Rolling Hills sounds forced, as does Morrison's unusually growly vocal. Steppin' Out Queen is fine, but doesn't seem to resonate as deeply as the best material here. With a different production, it might have sat quite comfortably on Wavelength.
But there is certainly a sense of Morrison reconnecting with important ideas and approaches, and again working with the best musicians to realise this vision. (7/10)
COMMON ONE: At one point, this was Morrison's favourite of all his albums (perhaps it still is). Critics at the time were bemused ("colossally smug and cosmically dull" - NME). I'm inclined to side with Morrison's perceptive self reflection. We are truly 'into the mystic' here.
Common One feels like the apotheosis of everything Morrison strives for at his most adventurous. The spiritual yearning, the ecstatic extemporising, the rapturous arrangements, the combination of spirituality, poetry, landscape, folklore, mythology and history.
Despite featuring a large ensemble and sometimes adding strings or a choir, the music has a tremendous sense of space and peace amidst the cathartic intensity. Mark Isham's trumpet and Pee Wee Ellis' saxophone have an airy, weightless quality.
It's not a jazz album (and Satisfied has as much soul as anything he's done), but its freeness and elasticity may have appealed more to jazz attuned ears. It is one of those albums that for years sat outside the rock mainstream and has never been fully absorbed into the canon.
It sits comfortably alongside Dexys' Don't Stand Me Down, Scott Walker's Climate of Hunter and Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden in a pantheon of classic reassessed albums. It's an album that requires focus and needs to be heard from start to finish.
Haunts of Ancient Peace is a mysterious and compelling opener, establishing a meditative and exploratory mood. Summertime In England and When The Heart Is Open are his most elaborate and absorbing epics (but very different from each other). Wild Honey is a glorious ballad.
The snaps from the restrained, quiet verses to the exhilarating, restorative choruses on Spirit are wonderful and Satisfied has a feeling of communal celebration. It's a masterpiece you could return to many times and still find new perspectives and new elements. (9/10)
BEAUTIFUL VISION (1982): An immediate contrast with Common One in that these songs are mostly straightforward forms and relatively concise. Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis are again present but their roles seem more carefully delineated and less free.
That being said, Beautiful Vision does share its predecessor’s spirituality and conviction, partially inspired by Alice Bailey and also exploring Celtic themes and sounds in greater depth.
It’s also interesting for its sound, which foregrounds electric guitar a lot more, albeit in a very different way from Wavelength. There’s an intriguing, warm, jangly tone to the rhythm guitars that feels fresh in the Morrison catalogue at this point.
It’s a strange combination of vocal performances. Some of them seem exultant (the title track particularly) but at other times, his delivery feels understated or is simply a bit low in the mix.
There’s a run of tremendous, inspired songs in the middle: Dweller On The Threshold, Beautiful Vision, She Gives Me Religion, Cleaning Windows, Vanlose Stairway.
It ends with a beautiful, If sonically slightly dated instrumental (Scandinavia) with some theatrical piano playing from Morrison himself.
Some long running battles between Morrison and the business seem to have picked up steam around this time. He dispensed with the services of producer Tom Dowd (recommenced by Warner Bros) and fired manager Bill Graham from the stage!
While it’s not quite of a level with Common One or Veedon Fleece, Beautiful Vision does have a notable coherence in its themes, musical approach and sound and is, for me, a definite highlight of Morrison’s second tier, along with Into The Music and St Dominic’s Preview. (7/10)
INARTICULATE SPEECH OF THE HEART (1983): Certainly one of my favourite Van album titles! His last album for Warner Bros and notable for featuring a greater proportion of instrumental tracks than anything so far. The sound world is synth-laden, dreamlike and textural.
Some of these songs seem subtle and take a while to click, something underlined by the often more conversational nature of the vocals. There is also a greater connection with Irish and Celtic folk music (Irish Heartbeat would of course later be reprised with The Chieftains).
While it is not as transcendent or joyful as Morrison's strongest work, there is definitely something soothing or healing about this album, particularly in the poetic and absorbing Rave On John Donne.
It is not, however, an album focused on energy or passion - and one should not come to it expecting anything urgent or upbeat. It is contemplative, meditative, often serene.
There are moments to cherish: Van doubling the lead guitar with his voice at the end of Irish Heartbeat is thrilling, the choir on September Night is mesmerising, the glorious Cry For Home is the album's one truly rousing song.
Morrison has understandably received criticism for the oblique thank you to L Ron Hubbard in the liner notes - but, as so often, his spirituality here seems to be so particular to his own music and language that some of the crankier inspirations don't necessarily matter.
It's definitely a slow burner of an album - but its nuances and calming glow imbue it with a presence and spirit of its own. (7/10)
LIVE AT THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE BELFAST (1984): This is one I hadn't actually listened to before this listening project. Selected from four separate live shows, it focuses on the productive period from Into The Music - Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart.
This means it function well as a unique live release, with no overlap in selections with It's Too Late To Stop Now. The sound is rather more glistening and polished than the intense ensemble vibe of It's Too Late, but many of the songs are still delivered with a kick.
The choices from these albums are really judicious too. There's a superb extended take on Rave On John Donne and a shimmering, moving Beautiful Vision. Full Force Gale is delivered with such gusto that it's over almost as soon as it starts. Vanlose Stairway is glorious.
The audience responds warmly to She Gives Me Religion (and this is even acknowledged by Morrison), one of many tracks on which the backing vocalists are in excelsis.
Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis of course play a crucial role and the sound of the band emphasises the warm guitars and synth textures of the then recent albums. Summertime In England was recorded from these concerts but sadly held over for a B side and not included on the album.
Overall, this feels like a neat summation of an intriguing and productive period of work. The lack of nostalgia in the selections and the commitment in the performance makes for a captivating and convincing document of this work and an argument in favour of its importance. (8/10)
A SENSE OF WONDER (1985): Spotify lists this as a 1984 album but Wikipedia has the release date as January 1985, presumably the copyright date is 1984. Thematically, this is a summation of Morrison’s spiritual and cultural concerns from Into The Music.
Musically, it again pushes soul and R&B to the forefront. There’s agile and elegant lead guitar playing from Chris Michie (a crucial figure in Morrison’s sound at this time). It feels beefier than Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, but the production easily dates to the mid-80s.
My sense is this album is a little underrated. It contains a solid gold major song in Tore Down a la Rimbaud. Initial work on this started just after Veedon Fleece but it took eight years to finish - “the longest I’ve ever carried a song around”.
It’s the most uplifting route out of writer’s block imaginable.

There’s also a graceful, inspiring ballad in The Master’s Eyes and a fascinating curio in the wordless Evening Meditation.
The interaction between Morrison and a chorus of angels on his version of Ray Charles’ What Will I Do sounds weirdly of a piece with the sound Leonard Cohen explored on Various Positions, released a mere month earlier.
It is undoubtedly a shame that the Yeats estate blocked the inclusion of Crazy Jane on God, as the Mose Allison cover Morrison used to replace it sounds somewhat out of place (and perhaps too much of an attempt to imitate Allison’s dry, sardonic style).
A more interesting piece of borrowing finds Morrison drawing on the great Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake on Let The Slave. With all its poet allusions, it feels appropriate listening to this album after Dylan’s new song I Contain Multitudes.
A degree of listening through the swathes of reverb and gloss is necessary to appreciate the core of A Sense Of Wonder, but it is a collection of inspiring and stirring songs, once again channeling poetry and mystery. (7/10)
NO GURU, NO METHOD, NO TEACHER (1986): With a title perhaps inspired by Krishnamurti, this is Van Morrison at his most contemplative and refined. It’s also a personal favourite of mine. Again, the way in which the lead and background vocals interact recalls Leonard Cohen.
Again, the sound does date to the 80s, but with plenty of brushed snare drum and agile guitar picking, it feels lighter, breezier, and more natural than A Sense Of Wonder.
Elements such as Kate St John’s oboe and cor anglais and Ritchie Buckley’s soprano saxophone also help to imbue this album with a distinctive approach that makes it stand out in the catalogue as particularly intimate and vivid.
There is something beautifully effortless and unassuming about these songs. Rather than reaching for enlightenment (or battling writer’s block as on Tore Down a la Rimbaud), it feels as if Morrison has reached a place of calm and tranquility.
While there are shifts in dynamics and moments of incrementally increasing tension, these are handled with subtlety and a real lightness of touch. There’s also a fascinating variety of vocal approaches here. At the start of Got To Go Back, he sounds almost unrecognisable.
A Town Called Paradise seems to play on his irascible, cantankerous reputation (“copycats ripped off my words...my melody...All that matters is my relationship to you”). The punning title of Here Comes The Knight shows his mischievous side.
The most important song is In The Garden, beautiful in its movement from sadness to a peaceful, spiritual resolution. Tir Na Nog, with its glorious string arrangement, is another great journey song.
Just when you think the one thing the album is missing is something more upbeat, along comes Ivory Tower to finish the album with a flourish of energy (albeit with bitterness, given that this is probably a pot shot at critics and the album’s one moment lacking in nuance).
Each song feels like an intricate story or painting, vibrant with colour, carefully detailed and imbued with feeling and emotion. (8/10)
POETIC CHAMPIONS COMPOSE (1987): Arguably another slightly undervalued album, this is stylistically of a piece with No Guru... although it involves some different musicians. It still emphasises a contemplative mood and benefits from some lush, expansive arrangements.
Morrison’s original intention was apparently to make an album of jazz instrumentals. This was evidently scrapped, but there are some residual ideas in the form of Spanish Steps and Celtic Excavation, two instrumentals that open each side.
Spanish Steps might be the best recorded example of Morrison’s alto sax playing, although even here it seems a little harsh in tone. A real highlight for me is the gently rolling interpretation of Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.
The Mystery is lovely (although it feels like a reiteration of staple Morrison concerns) and the livelier home straight (Alan Watts Blues, Give Me My Rapture, Did Ye Get Healed) feels particularly strong.
Great rim click sound on the snare drum 🥁 throughout!
Overall, it’s not quite as unified and absorbing as No Guru... - but it’s another welcome piece in Morrison’s most underrated period. (7/10)
IRISH HEARTBEAT (1988): Morrison heads to Dublin, teams up with the Chieftains, connects with Irish roots music and produces a gem of an album. Its predecessors had hinted at this, with occasional Celtic influenced songs or instrumentals - but this is a fully committed project.
Of the ten songs, two are re-interpretations of appropriate Morrison originals (the title track and Celtic Ray) and the rest are trad Irish or Scottish songs. If Van sounded meditative on No Guru and Poetic Champs he now either has a spring in his step or aches with melancholy.
It appears to have been a genuinely collaborative work, with Morrison and Paddy Moloney being co-credited with the evocative arrangements. It also appears to be an honest work too - a work of exploration and rejuvenation rather than nostalgia.
There are some deft and effective backing vocals, the loveliest of which come from Mary Black. Morrison’s delivery of Raglan Road is beautifully clear and controlled. He makes this song with great lineage his own. This performance is rich in both emotion and experience.
Carrickfergus is not just weary but also heartbreaking. His take on My Lagan Love is wilder. Even the lighter material, such as I’ll Tell Me Ma, is effortlessly nimble and tremendous fun. The Morrison originals blend in perfectly, assuming their place as modern standards.
This one is to be filed alongside Dylan’s Good As I Been To You/World Gone Wrong and Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions project as one of the great examples of an established modern songwriter engaging with folk traditions. A wonderful recording. (8/10)
AVALON SUNSET (1989): Morrison’s final album of the 80s brought somewhat unexpected album chart success and became a gold seller, aided handsomely by the treacly but much loved ballad Have I Told You Lately and a duet with Cliff Richard on Whenever God Shines His Light.
It’s also notable for the first appearance of Georgie Fame who occupied an unofficial MD role and would continue to work with Morrison for some time. The great Henry Lowther and Stan Sulzmann play trumpet and alto saxophone respectively. Alan Barnes plays baritone.
Sadly, the impressive line-up of UK jazz expertise can’t quite save this record for me. It’s too flattened out and smooth, pleasant but never quite eventful. It doesn’t radiate the joy, transcendence or longing that Morrison is capable of at his best. There is little tension.
I’ve always found the Cliff duet deeply odd. Cliff’s vocals are as warm and ingratiating as usual - it’s not hard to see why he has been so popular. But his expression of religion is earnest and worthy rather than searching and spiritual. The keyboard riff is infectious though.
I’d Love To Write Another Song is an early example of the kind of dry, sardonic (and, if we’re honest, somewhat lazy) attempt at a jazz standard Morrison would go on to write repeatedly. Later on, they would go as far as to become cynical.
Morrison’s music has often been dubbed ‘new age’ - but this album has some of the more pejorative associations with that term in its washy synth sounds and relative paucity of expression.
The orchestrations, a crucial element of the album’s sound, often feel piled on a bit thick too.
The album’s second half is much stronger for me - I’m Tired Joey Boy , When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God and Orangefield are heartfelt. Daring Night comes closest to taking flight but remains a little too tethered to its backbeat.
These Are The Days provides a gently melodic communitarian singalong to close the proceedings. This is a pleasant album, and it’s easy to understand its wider appeal - but Morrison could have taken more risks. (5/10)
ENLIGHTENMENT (1990): Morrison again works with Georgie Fame and some seasoned jazz musicians, but with more satisfying results. The strings are back (and Avalon of The Heart is overblown) but are this time counterbalanced by a more natural and flexible ensemble sound.
There are warmer guitar tones, piano sounds amidst the synths, and greater emphasis on dynamic range throughout the album. Songs like Youth of 1,000 Summers have a real vibrancy and propulsion that was lacking in Avalon Sunset. Fame’s own presence on organ is more strongly felt.
We finally get the infectious and energising Real Real Gone, originally written for Common One but somewhat out of step with that record’s sense of awe and space. I might prefer the version on The Philosopher’s Stone but it’s still a massive ear worm.
Even weaker material like In The Days Before Rock And Roll demonstrates an awareness of groove and feel. So Quiet In Here is a light and airy delight. She’s My Baby appealingly reprises and refashions the soulful style of Tupelo Honey. Memories aches sweetly.
There’s nothing here that feels major - the writing is a bit too formulaic. It is however an engaging and uplifting minor work attuned to Morrison’s vocal powers and the qualities of the musicians involved. It looks ahead to some of the low key but satisfying later albums. (6/10)
HYMNS TO THE SILENCE (1991): Far removed from the prevailing trends of the time (rave, grunge etc), Morrison produces his first studio double album. To be brutally honest, there's not enough evidence that he was sufficiently inspired to justify the extended run time.
Again, the vibe is a little flat, and the writing is often shoehorned into facsimile standards from jazz, country and blues. There's some elaborate bass playing throughout though, and some moments that work well.
Including hymns is something different and new - and one wonders whether something more interesting and engaging might have come through a complete set of devotional songs - a religious cousin to Irish Heartbeat, perhaps. (The Chieftains actually return as guests here).
The second disc at least brings the album's spiritual concerns more to the forefront, with some degree of success, although it still feels like the music circles around, refusing to go anywhere.
There are cloying examples of Morrison's frustration. Why Must I Always Explain is melodically pleasing (thanks to its similarity to Tupelo Honey), but full of combative attitude ('it's just a job you know, it's now Sweet Lorraine') - who really wants or need to hear this?
Professional Jealousy churlishly argues that those who succeed through hard work are unreasonably subject to envy and reputational smears.
I'm Not Feeling It Anymore suggests Morrison is falling into a groove of delivering formulaic songs that come without too much in the way of search and effort. Take Me Back reminds us of his improvising and communicating abilities but offers less interest in the actual music.
There are soothing, gentle, healing moments. Green Mansions is wistful and evocative and Village Idiot is lovely (questionable title and theme notwithstanding). Of the spoken word songs, I quite like the textures of Pagan Streams.
But Hymns To The Silence establishes where we are with late Morrison - increased prolificacy, variable quality. 'What happened to a sense of wonder?' (5/10)
TOO LONG IN EXILE (1993): Strangely, this may have been the first Morrison album I heard in full. I remember borrowing a cassette copy from the excellent audio section of Hornsey library. It’s another long and sometimes underpowered set but it’s livelier than its predecessor.
With Georgie Fame again assuming a key role and John Lee Hooker (whose vocals and guitar are so distinctive and very welcome) guesting, blues is the key inspiration. The album includes revisiting old hallowed ground (Gloria) and interpretations of blues songs.
(Sadly one of these is Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, a creepy lyric that won’t really fly in 2020, even if it still did in 1993). He also tackles material from James Moody and Brook Benton and interpolates Doc Pomus (Lonely Avenue).
The title track opens proceedings exuberantly (but transparently inspired by Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters). Unfortunately it goes straight into Big Time Operators, another tiresome anti-music business rant set to a 12 bar form.
We also get the first of many versions of Close Enough For Jazz, hardly his greatest song, but one he seemingly can’t leave behind.
There’s an abundance of standard blues or jazz forms and I still feel that Morrison is better when synthesising different musical language into a satisfying hybrid than he is at trying to inhabit the actual traditions themselves.
This might explain why my favourite songs here draw both from blues language and beyond (Ball & Chain, In The Forest, Til We Get The Healing Done, Wasted Years).
Morrison does appear to be both inspired and engaged vocally, often elevating these arrangements with some exploratory and impassioned vocal performances. The collaborations with John Lee Hooker are the key moments. But the peaks of his later career are still to come. (5/10)
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