Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
For No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986), the now 40-year-old was feeling nostalgic for his younger years on the first song, “Got To Go Back.” Lyrically it’s pleasant, but the muted production doesn’t do the song any favors. He references Rimbaud (not Rambo) again on “Foreign Window,” and we discover that the album title comes from the lyrics to “In The Garden,” a quiet & poetic track with one brief crescendo toward the end. “Tir Na Nog” finds him possibly looking to the past again (the title apparently means “land of youth” in Irish Mythology). This song has a great string arrangement from Jef Labes. I enjoyed the cynicism in his lyrics to “Thanks For The Information.” None of these are major additions to his catalog, but they continue the pleasant nature of his ‘80s work.
There’s an overall light-jazz sound on Poetic Champions Compose (1987), beginning with instrumental opener “Spanish Steps.” There’s a nice string part and a saxophone melody played by Van. My favorite track on the album is “I Forgot That Love Existed,” its piano and bass-led intro immediately catching my ear. Slick production and instrumentation once again suck any power and grit from the old slavery-era spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” However, Van & the band wake up a little on two other favorites, “Alan Watts Blues” and “Did Ye Get Healed?”
Seemingly out of nowhere, Van recorded an album with legendary Irish group The Chieftains. Irish Heartbeat (1988) was…and remains…like nothing else in his catalog. And it’s a special record. He had often included Celtic melodies in his music, but this is the first time he fully embraced this style. I don’t consider myself an expert on Celtic music, but I am a fan of artists like The Bothy Band, Silly Wizard, Christy Moore, Solas, Lúnasa, Planxty and numerous others. When this type of music is played well, it can be as exciting and electric as anything else, even though it’s performed on traditional acoustic instruments (like Uilleann pipes, bodhran, fiddle, guitar and tin whistle).
Both “Irish Heartbeat” and “Celtic Ray” are re-worked versions of previously recorded Van Morrison originals. The remaining songs are traditionals arranged by Van and Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney. There’s not a weak song here, and I would highly recommend it to anyone (except those who don’t like this style of music, of course). I wonder how loyal Van Morrison fans felt about this album when it was released, as it sticks out like a pint of Guinness in a room full of brandy drinkers.
Van closed out the ‘80s with Avalon Sunset (1989), an album that shares production values with many of his ‘80s recordings, but added enough new elements to stand out from the pack. It’s a good album with some great songs, and feels like a preview of the stronger albums to follow in the early ‘90s. One of the new sounds included here is the Hammond organ, played by Georgie Fame. It adds an authentic swing-blues vibe to “I’d Love To Write Another Song,” and brings to mind Garth Hudson (of The Band) on “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God.”
The worldwide hit “Have I Told You Lately” is the centerpiece of the album. Its inclusion in a million wedding celebrations doesn’t diminish the beauty of the words or melody. Different but equally as striking is “Coney Island,” as Van narrates this brief tune in a heavy Irish brogue. Overall, this album gives me the feeling that Van is waking from a long slumber, sounding invigorated, and ready to take on the next decade.
I recall thoroughly enjoying the next two albums in his catalog, Enlightenment and Hymns To The Silence, but I probably haven’t listened to either one in at least 10 years. I’m eagerly anticipating getting reacquainted with them in the coming days. I’ll talk about that in my next post, along with a few subsequent albums.