Celebrate the Catalog : Van Morrison (1967-1983)

Inarticulate Speech

Common OneCommon One
(1980; Warner Bros.)

Common One is Morrison’s strangest album, and the competition’s not very close. Ricocheting off Into the Music’s heroic stance and solid song structures, Morrison went into the fully detached realms of jazz fusion and abstraction. Musical director and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and trumpeter Mark Isham set the tone with fluid and lyrical lines, doubled with arrangements that were lush, nervy and spaced-out.

Morrison had finally penned his equivalent to the work of his favorite visionary poets Blake and Yeats, and emulates their free-flowing verse with nearly reckless intemperance. The result estranged a lot of his popular audience and a good number of critics, and Common One has all but vanished from the shelf of even some of Morrison’s most devoted fans. But they should dig it up and put it right back. Common One is Morrison’s most unabated rush of creativity, full of sound blocks and stream-of-consciousness invocations. The insanity is infectious and well-proportioned, and most of it is compelling as a simple listening experience.

Two extended, 15-minute-plus pieces anchor Common One. “Summertime in England” is a hurricane of lunacy, hurrying through proclamations with shuddering strings, then exhaling to a thoughtful crawl as Morrison runs through more poetic tributes in full trance mode (“James Joyce wrote stream of consciousness books… T.S. Eliot chose England… T.S. Eliot joined the ministry…”). We might lack access to his thoughts, but in this case the process is enough. The new-age baiting “When Heart Is Open” is a modernized raga, separated from strict time and subject to deep flows with Morrison droning, chanting and sounding more intimate and restful than ever, with Morrison’s unexpected cries serving as real elation rather than interruption.

The shorter pieces are just as challenging. “Haunts of Ancient Peace” reaches for the celestial and collides with a gospel choir, Ellis’ wise sax playing and Isham’s centering trumpet. “Satisfied”is a triumph, with Morrison playing off an ‘80s soul-jazz riff with a calculatedly insane organ riff by John Allair pushing the whole band to unreasonable extremes. Common One retains its mystery and might not be the jukebox’s idea of an everyday album, but its oddity its, more often than not, is eclipsed by its splendor. I might be alone on this one. I don’t care.

Rating: 7.6 out of 10

beautiful visionBeautiful Vision
(1982; Warner Bros.)

The Van Morrison myth at the time of Beautiful Vision had fully transformed. Into the Music did the job of reintroducing his Celtic roots into his ethos, and they were wisely there to stay. After Common One’s unbridled wildness, Morrison retreated into his customary song structures but caught on to modern production styles as well as any other “heritage” artist might have done. As a result his final two albums for Warner Bros. were some of the more futuristic-sounding popular works of their time that didn’t sound like video games.

Beautiful Vision is a full-on spiritual confession, supplanted with ethereal reverb and Morrison’s most methodical vocals yet. It’s not certain whether Morrison’s freshly found center informed the album’s fairly ordered flow or the other way around, but whatever the answer it’s one of his more comforting works. “Celtic Ray,” “Northern Muse (Solid Ground)” and the title track fill the room with a sense of ease and at least one distinguishing trait (the fiddle on “Celtic Ray,” the crisp guitar fills on “Beautiful Vision”). “Dweller on the Threshold” is a jumpy track that moves quickly, bouncing off Mark Isham’s soft but plucky trumpet lines. “Cleaning Windows,” Van’s ode to vocation-enforced humility, chugs along with discreet guitar licks from Mark Knopfler.

Conceptually, Beautiful Vision has an advantage over less thoughtful works like Wavelength, but Van’s mostly disappearing into the surroundings imbues it with a lightly homogenized quality, usually the last thing you’d expect from one of his albums. The synthetic mistiness of the closing “Scandinavia” – the first instrumental on a Morrison album and a big hint about what was up next – typifies the weightlessness you get when you’re shooting for the celestial. Sometimes it’s good to have a little gravity.

Rating: 6.9 out of 10

Van Morrison discography Inarticulate speechInarticulate Speech of the Heart
(1983; Warner Bros.)

Morrison’s final album for Warner Brothers couldn’t have been more plain a break from his code. Fully driven by electronics and synthesizer, it’s equally split between the ponderous and the glossy. Neither truly glib nor sharply bellicose (and featuring an unexplained acknowledgement to L. Ron Hubbard), it feels like a series of amplified afterthoughts with unformed instrumental goals.

Morrison does turn in some curious compositions with unanticipated blueprints. “Higher Than the World” borrows from the early ‘80s synth-pop of Todd Rundgren – try to imagine Van Morrison borrowing anything more than a cup of sugar from Todd Rundgren – for a relatively attractive melody that can’t quite hoist up his vocals, which for the first time ever sound constricted and unfocused. “River of Time” and “Cry for Home” are drenched with pop and new-wave trimmings so broken with Morrison’s background they just sound alien. The instrumentals “Connswater” and “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart No. 1” restate frozen themes, although each resolves into drum-driven summits that tests if you’re awake.

Two pieces stand out. “Rave On, John Donne” reaffirms Morrison’s adherence to written poets over a slow wave that almost overtakes his possessed spoken prayer. “Irish Heartbeat” introduces one of his most enduring ‘80s songs, though the cover Morrison recorded with the Chieftains in 1987 is the superior version.

Taken as the destination of his muse thus far, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart does suggest a completion of sorts: After 16 insanely creative years, in which Morrison usually operated outside the mainstream and vitalized his command of words and music, perhaps he was just staring at the expanse in wonder, not needing lucidity or exactness to describe what he’d seen. And, to be honest, I can understand that kind of artistic reach and accomplishment leaving one speechless.

Rating: 5.1 out of 10

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