Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The 1980’s were not a great decade in Van Morrison’s career, although he was prolific, releasing 8 studio albums (including a collaboration with The Chieftains) and 1 live album. On my first pass through these albums this past week, I didn’t think I’d have much to write. Everything sounded nice, pleasant, relaxing and mellow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but after an impressive string of albums throughout the ‘70s, this seemed like a major letdown. I’m not sure that assessment is entirely wrong, but upon listening a second (and occasionally a third) time, I unearthed some previously undiscovered gems.
Van began the new decade with Common One (1980), opening with the hymn-like “Haunts Of Ancient Peace,” featuring some nice muted trumpet. It’s jazzy, but not exactly “jazz.” At 55 minutes this is his lengthiest studio album, though it only includes 6 tracks. Two of these tracks clock in at over 15 minutes. The first, “Summertime In England,” really grabbed me on second listen. I love the strings at around the 5-minute mark. The second, album closer “When Heart Is Open,” is a meditative piece that never pulled me in. It seems to float in the ether, which points to the direction he would pursue frequently on his next several albums, but never on such a grand scale. One other notable track, “Satisfied,” could be a Steely Dan song circa Aja or Gaucho, at least musically speaking. I consider that a positive thing.
Both Beautiful Vision (1982) and Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983) felt like minor works to me. On the former, “Northern Muse” is a solid track with vague hints of his earlier classic, “And It Stoned Me.” “Dweller On The Threshold” is a good song done in by an airtight production that doesn’t allow the song to breathe. It would come to life on an upcoming live album. “Vanlose Stairway” comes off slightly better here but would also improve in the live setting. Album opener, “Celtic Ray,” would be re-recorded in a much better version with The Chieftains several years later.
On the latter album, “Rave On, John Donne” is my favorite track mostly because of Van’s vocal delivery. He sing-speaks his tribute to poets & writers who have inspired him. The album closes with “September Night,” an instrumental track featuring wordless vocals by several female voices, and Van’s voice cutting through like a saxophone. He also plays some nice piano here. Otherwise, there’s nothing spectacular on these albums.
His second live album, Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast (1984), was recorded in his homeland in 1983, after his contract with Warner Brothers expired. This was his first release for Mercury Records. Other than a brief instrumental intro of “Into The Mystic,” the songs all come from recent albums. “Dweller On The Threshold” is a much more driving version than the original. There’s an excellent version of “Rave On, John Donne” with Van rushing through the band introductions at the end. The best part of the album for me was the sax solo, played by Van himself, on “Haunts Of Ancient Peace.” Where does he find the stamina to blow the sax like that and go right back to singing? Very impressive indeed.
When I was 18, rock radio in New York was actually playing a new Van Morrison track called “Tore Down A La Rimbaud.” It was pretty catchy, and the sound of the track was right at home on the radio with other contemporary songs. At the time I didn’t know who Rimbaud was (even now, I only know that Arthur Rimbaud is a well-regarded 19th Century poet, but I’ve never read any of his work), so I foolishly believed he was singing about “Rambo,” the testosterone-fueled Sylvester Stallone character. Well, I didn’t really think that’s what it was about, but that’s what it sounded like to me. Anyway, this song is the first track on A Sense Of Wonder (1984), yet another decent album marred by slick arrangements & production. The mid-section of the album especially is MOR (Middle Of the Road) & dull.
“Boffyflow And Spike” is the best song to my ears, an upbeat Celtic instrumental that’s based on four brief paragraphs included in the packaging. Was this part of a book or short story? I couldn’t find any more information. His vocals are strong on the title track, but at more than 7 minutes it overstays its welcome. “If You Only Knew,” written by jazz/blues great Mose Allison, is a wonderful blues number. Another uneven album, but there are several tracks I will revisit in the future.
I will discuss Van’s output in the second half of the ‘80s in my next post, which will be coming very soon.