Celebrate the Catalog : Van Morrison (1967-1983)

Wild night

Van Morrison discography MoondanceMoondance
(1970; Warner Bros.)

With Astral Weeks’ intensity behind him Morrison set about mastering his tools, surveying his influences and ordering his place amongst others. The three-album span starting with Moondance backed off iconoclasm and sought connections: with his muse and the music that originally inspired him, but with outsiders as well. This isn’t to say he gave a damn what those outsiders felt about him, but that his most populist work of this period developed his presence. Moondance is likely the work most casual fans own or recall.

Morrison’s reflections are less complicated but quietly evocative. Water served three ways informs the R&B-gospel childhood memory of “And It Stoned Me.” Morrison’s depiction of the element as quencher, replenishment and obstacle might slip by the first thousand times you hear it, but it’s astounding. “Into the Mystic” makes water a conveyance home, and Morrison’s exclamation “I don’t need to fear it!” is the album’s most exultant release. The low brass and foghorn emulations sound like a welcoming band on a slowly approaching and misty shore.

The title track likely legitimized jazz for the rock audience, and simplifies Morrison’s romantic intent as do “Crazy Love” and “Come Running.” “These Dreams of You” is a comic look at how complicated relationships can get once you’re asleep and the Freudian dream police come knocking: “And you slapped me on the face / I turned around the other cheek / You couldn’t really stand the pace / And I would never be so meek.” But Morrison’s attempts to hook on to society at large are interesting for their believability, or lack thereof. “Caravan” and “Everyone” feel like Morrison convincing himself of communal goodwill – especially the latter, with its amusing faux-Renaissance intro and its forced good vibes. “Caravan” bounces off its joyous R&B breakdown of “radio, radio.” The surprise ending, “Glad Tidings,” is probably more like it: “Every stranger will make demands… meet them halfway with love.”

Moondance established Morrison’s excellence as a practitioner, getting its moments of redemption in more removed but brilliant execution. He’s going outside of himself a bit, but the implied layer of tension and wildness makes it as potent as it is palatable.

Rating: 9.1 out of 10

Van Morrison discography his band and the street choirHis Band and the Street Choir
(1971; Warner Bros.)

For whatever reason, Morrison’s then-wife Janet Planet introduced His Band and the Street Choir as an antidote to the darkness of “T.B. Sheets” and Astral Weeks. Her efforts are amusingly hard-sold in her liner note: “I have seen Van open those parts of his secret self – his essential core of aloneness I had always feared could never be broken into – and say…yes, come in here. Know me.” Buddy Van is even pictured wearing a frock on the double-exposed cover because that’s what everyone in Woodstock was wearing at the time.

His Band and the Street Choir repays his debt to American R&B, most obviously in straight homage. “I’ve Been Working” is a driving James Brown workout, “Give Me a Kiss” chugs with the simple bliss of Jackie Wilson, and “If I Ever Needed Someone” burns with an emotional Stax smolder worthy of Sam & Dave. “Domino,” Morrison’s biggest chart single, distills the R&B elements into a can’t-miss package with his unique mantra-making in full effect (“Roll me over Romeo, there you go”).

He’s still investigating the point of commitment in the romantic realm. “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” pushes R&B devotional into a folk setting with unexpected ease, but the straight-up adoration of “Gypsy Queen” and “Sweet Jannie” is a quick frisson that evaporates quickly. “Blue Money” gets its kicks from droll cackles at the modeling industry and a promising shopping spree.

But outside elements don’t always play smoothly with Morrison. “Call Me Up in Dreamland” has his committed vocals, but the group-sing is almost as awkward as Morrison’s tentative (that’s being kind) sax solo. Planet’s backup vocal on “Blue Money” is far more distracting than it should be, and the contrivances of “Virgo Clowns” (astrology? Really?) are things he just doesn’t do. It’s not that Morrison’s a misanthrope, or even that much of a control freak, but His Band and the Street Choir saddles his vision and best-ever vocals with a stroppy bunch with the best intentions. When it’s all on him, it’s transcendence as usual.

Rating: 7.6 out of 10

Van Morrison discography tupelo honeyTupelo Honey
(1971; Warner Bros.)

Wild Night,” arguably Morrison’s most complete early ‘70s hit, moved fluidly through familiar R&B terrain. But there it is, mixed softly but clearly in your headphones: a pedal steel guitar that probably escaped the AM radio mix. Tupelo Honey completes Morrison’s initial reflection of American music through the eyes of an immigrant by embracing country as a cousin of traditional British Isles folk, restoring the validity His Band and the Street Choir toyed with. Morrison backs off from his vocal fireworks to fit more into the plainspoken vernacular, but everything around him pops into life.

“(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball” is a loopy, drunken waltz with a grainy electric guitar bubbling along in time. The country-spiked trio that completes the album turns on the charm like Morrison hadn’t before. “I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative),” despite its title, is swaggering mandolin-and-pedal-steel waltzing bliss. “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” perks with New Orleans piano, and the epic “Moonshine Whiskey” is one of Van’s zaniest expeditions. Switching abruptly from two-step to Texas waltz with no warning, Morrison teases the hoedown with comic promises from another roadhouse altogether: “Gonna put on my hot pants and promenade down funky Broadway.” Later on he gets off watching and imitating fish.

Tupelo Honey is Morrison at his most content, or at least seeking contentment through fixity. While that means he stays in place lyrically, there’s never been an album that finds him more at peace, and that’s saying something. “Old Old Woodstock” reflects on the amity of the place he was about to leave for the West Coast. “You’re My Woman” and the title track are his most reverent love songs since “Sweet Thing,” casting his warmth with remarkably aggressive guitar and drums, straight and basic testimonials and euphoric climaxes. Setting course for the backwoods and desert not only underscores his affection for American folk and country: It also makes Tupelo Honey the most forceful rock and roll record in Morrison’s catalog.

Rating: 8.1 out of 10

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