Listen to the lion
Saint Dominic’s Preview
(1972; Warner Bros.)
Change isn’t that evident at the beginning of Morrison’s sixth album. It starts with, in order, Morrison’s catchiest R&B stomper (“Jackie Wilson Said [I’m In Heaven When You Smile]”), a stop-start rocker indulging nomadic fascination (“Gypsy”) and an almost campy throwback to big-band jazz (“I Will Be There”). It’s all a lot of fun. Then something snaps.
In 11 minutes, “Listen to the Lion” resets Morrison’s slate and strategy. “All my love come tumblin’ down… I shall search my very soul… All my tears have flown” he sings in short chops, deliberating as if he’s forcing discipline upon himself. He commits to unleashing “the lion inside of me.” And five minutes in, the lion comes out. Morrison grunts, growls, hesitates, sings an aire, stutters, moans and makes childish bleats. He climaxes in a crowning roar that’s ugly and unmistakable. The gamble – clearly he’s not concerned how polite society would accept this vocal performance – is joltingly pure.
Morrison allows himself longer time to explore upheaval and shifts that he hadn’t examined quite so sharply to that point. In the title track, one of his greatest songs, he slow downs his chaotic road life and questions the veracity of his associates, both known and suggested (“Everybody feels so determined not to feel anyone else’s pain”). It’s at that moment that he retakes his solitariness in questionable company — meaning, of course, the music industry: “Just to be hip and get wet with the jet set/But they’re flying too high to see my point of view.”
Morrison’s circle contracts; a veil descends. It’s all he can do to find repose and comfort from across San Francisco Bay in “Almost Independence Day,” watching in both admiration and trepidation at the celebration of a country that’s served as his home for nearly a half-decade. The dreams and static are in the same corral; Morrison scats amidst the naturalism of his acoustic guitar and the artifice of a monophonic synthesizer. It’s freedom at its most threatening and tense. Assuming how tightly a musician’s art mirrors his own life is a dangerous practice, but the fierceness of Saint Dominic’s Preview three longest tracks proves that whatever Morrison encounters, he’s already ruled out backing down.
Rating: 8.7 out of 10
Hard Nose the Highway
(1973; Warner Bros.)
Even the most resolutely self-controlled artist has his or her moment of inexplicable indulgence. And with that introduction, we present “Snow in San Anselmo,” the most bizarre Morrison track of the ‘70s. Intending merely to remark on the appearance of snow in a town that gets it once every half-century or so, Morrison cuts the blasé melody with odd interjections from the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus and brief measures of speed-jazz cacophony. That must have been one screwed-up snowstorm.
Hard Nose the Highway is one of Morrison’s most critically bruised albums, but its worst crime is merely that it meanders. After the unfortunate conflicting elements of “San Anselmo” it settles into a groove a little south of his most classic tracks. Perhaps it’s just that Morrison’s rambunctious ideas were coming too fast to execute properly, and as a result there’s the occasional disconnect and sense of depletion. The title track encourages listeners to check out Frank Sinatra, then just makes an overture to leave. The jazz waltz of “Wild Children” just stalls out, and the lounge-jazz shuffle of “Autumn Song” jumps not one hurdle in its ten and a half minutes.
But it’s not a total disaster. “Warm Love” is a reasonable addition to Morrison’s canon of crowd favorites with its clipped falsetto vocal and the rushing refrain “And it’s ever-present everywhere.” The cover of “Bein’ Green” by, that’s right, Kermit the Frog is a superciliously silly idea, but it’s fun and even well-orchestrated. And “The Great Deception” is fantastic, a very welcome shot of bile against the bill of goods the hippies sold him in ’71: “The plastic revolutionaries take the money and run.” Morrison then takes down moronic commercialism with relish and accuracy. It recalls music writer Bill Flanagan’s description of Morrison as “an artist so dedicated to truth that he cannot bear any polite hypocrisy.” Hard Nose was his only true misfire to that point, but even if it’s art for art’s sake, at least that’s failing for the right reasons.
Rating: 5.3 out of 10
(1974; Warner Bros.)
Morrison had returned to Belfast for the first time in nearly a decade, which surely accounts for the rather sudden appearance of Irish locations and traditions on Veedon Fleece. The change of scenery also unlocked a certain poetic strain Morrison hadn’t yet displayed. Even though most of Veedon Fleece is by nature inscrutable, it recaptures the mystic more convincingly than anything since Astral Weeks.
The distance gives him some insight into his role as immigrant on two songs, “Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights” and “Who Was That Masked Man?” The short pieces bristle with alienation, longing and unexpected violence (both songs mention “livin’ with a gun”). Especially on “Linden Arlen” Morrison howls more plaintively than ever before.
Morrison depends on the recalibration qualities of his homeland naturalism. “Fair Play” marvels on the blue Killarney lakes; “Streets of Arklow” and “Country Fair” find him squeezing back into his home tradition, the latter with a meditative droning from something that sounds like a hurdy-gurdy. “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac” both seek relief in confines: the former in forging transatlantic brotherhood, the latter seeking refuge from the mad city of “Madame George”: “And when they all go home down the cobblestones/You will double back to a cul de sac.”
Morrison has the frequency space to push as much of his investigations through as possible. “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” is practically a cauldron of his belief systems, a primal shot of remembrance and vision that percolates for eight minutes and change. It’s an accounting of his impulses and stimuli: childhood, soul music, nature and poetry. His casting of “William Blake & the Eternals” as an R&B band (along with the “Sisters of Mercy”) is a simple trick that says loads about where he comes from, as does “Fair Play”’s mention of “Poe, Oscar Wilde and Thoreau.”
Veedon Fleece is the hardest of Morrison’s albums to explain, but it’s one of his most enchanted. Its vagueness is its wild card: I can see (and have seen) plenty of folks rejecting its elliptical stance as being too much work to figure out. But it feels too key to the rest of Van Morrison’s work to overlook; it may be as personal as he’d ever get.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10