A period of transition
A Period of Transition
(1977; Warner Bros.)
In the 1970s, a three-year break between new releases was a virtual eternity, and enough of a shift happened in the marketplace between 1974 and 1977 that you can hear the stylistic result in A Period of Transition. It’s got a slicker, modern gloss and fleshed-out productions that wouldn’t sound out of the question for a Steely Dan record. Co-produced with Dr. John, it has some vestiges of the New Orleans R&B tradition of Allen Toussaint and the Meters, but far less than you’d think.
The groove’s there in the fine opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World” (Dr. John’s crackling clavinet) and the low-down “It Fills You Up.” On “Joyous Sound” the rolling piano’s a good foil for an upbeat bounce, and “Flamingos Fly” brings Morrison as close to the present as he ever got – there’s even a brief, disco-derived open-and-shut hi-hat line I’m sure somebody meant to tell him about.
The revelation meter’s a bit on the low side. “The Eternal Kansas City” breaks from a forced build from a gospel choir as Morrison anachronistically pays homage to jazz heroes. “Cold Wind in August” casts Van’s acoustic groove with saturated background vocals that sound fine, but don’t capture the wildness and variance of Van’s gifted voice. A Period of Transition’s unusual brevity (barely a half-hour) makes it a quick and enjoyable listen, but one’s left with the impression that after three years he was still buying time.
Rating: 6.4 out of 10
(1978; Warner Bros.)
Following A Period of Transition was another Van Morrison album that dismantled artistic pretense and curried an uncomplicated good time. Wavelength was his first album since Saint Dominic’s Preview to receive a warm reception from the commercial sector. Most of the fuel came from its title track, which found a niche in album-oriented rock radio by tapping into Morrison’s familiar tacks and wedding them to a modernistic pulse.
But Wavelength is one of the few Van albums that feels locked to its time. The cheer is relentless and slick, fitting neatly alongside other artifacts like Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees or Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town. “Kingdom Hall” presents the, um, novel idea of a gospel revival meeting happening at a Jehovah’s Witness church. “Venice U.S.A.” has a genteel, mid-period Dead strut with a thick Cajun accordion at his disposal. The title track moves along amiably. But the longer thought pieces lack movement and admission; “Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession” and “Take It Where You Find It” are not so much revealed as they are engraved.
Morrison also sounds curiously like he’s moving into new techniques against his will. His relationship with the synthesizer on Wavelength is awkward at best. On “Venice U.S.A.” it threatens to topple the bridge into sugar-infested waters, and the fake brass flourishes on “Take It Where You Find It” nudge it towards Elvis’ version of “An American Trilogy.” For an artist as defined by naturalism as Van Morrison, the machines just sound like a prank.
Rating: 6.2 out of 10
Into the Music
(1979; Warner Bros.)
Morrison finally found comfort with contemporary sounds three albums into his post-layoff career. Into the Music finds him re-engaging with the bliss of melody and his more patient muse, and to mark the re-commitment, he divides the album into two self-contained segments. Uniting them both are strains of Irish and Celtic traditionalism, brought forth through the spirited playing of violinist Toni Marcus.
Side One is some of the purest exuberance Morrison ever got on tape. “Bright Side of the Road” is Van’s sunniest album-opener, taking a nearly Broadway idea of a deep South hoedown and treating pessimism like a turtlenecked fool. “Full Force Gale,” “Steppin’ Out Queen” and “You Make Me Feel So Free” are the most convincing rock and R&B hybrids Morrison dealt out at the end of the ‘70s, celebrating the rebirth of both spiritual and romantic love with full abandon. “Rolling Hills” was his first take on straight Celtic folk traditionalism, with authoritative fiddle, ringing pennywhistle and Van vowing to read his Bible every day and dance a jig. It’s beyond enchanting.
The second side resumes the unhurried, balladic exploration that marked his most resonant mid-’70s work. Morrison lets each work unfold without force, understanding what’s possible and credible to attempt with fluidity and power. “And the Healing Has Begun” spins Morrison forward more than anything since Veedon Fleece, bringing him back to the avenues of his Celtic hamlet and affirming how music has sustained him in direct, complimentary terms (“I just gotta play this Muddy Waters track!” he says to an impromptu houseguest). His cover of the ‘50s pop standard “It’s All In the Game” dissolves into “You Know What They’re Writing About,” an entranced monologue explaining both the wonder and restraints of his beloved poetry (“When there’s no more words to say about love, I go…” scatting). Maybe with Into the Music it’s not Morrison finally figuring out how to use modern music; it’s music finally catching up with him.
Rating: 7.8 out of 10