Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When Van Morrison began the 1990’s, he had been a recording artist for over 25 years. In that time he covered a lot of musical ground, and went from being a popular million-selling hit maker with gold & platinum records to a respected elder statesman who continued crafting solid albums with the occasional hit record, while never quite recapturing those early days of mega success. Of course, he wasn’t courting that kind of success anymore.
By this time in his career, Van wasn’t breaking any new musical ground, instead mining the same combination of blues, R&B, Celtic, jazz, gospel and pop that had long been his stock-in-trade. His lyrics continued to address spiritual questions while often looking back to his younger days, occasionally referencing artists (singers, musicians, poets) who had inspired him. He also continued being prolific, releasing nearly an album a year in an era when popular artists often took several years between releases.
Having listened to over 20 of his albums these past few weeks, I feel like I’ve heard it all. At this point it comes down to a few key questions for me: Does he sound inspired? Is he introducing any new twists, however subtle they may be? Are there any individual performances that stand out? But most importantly, are the songs great? Will they stick in my head like his classics? If I were putting together a Van Morrison compilation for a friend, how many of these songs would I include?
When Enlightenment (1990) was originally released, I thought it was a return to form. It sounded like his more recent albums, but the songs were better. Revisiting it again this past week, it’s not quite as good as I remember, possibly on par with its predecessor, Avalon Sunset. It does start off strong with the peppy “Real Real Gone” and the more pensive title track. I hadn’t previously noticed that he’s not preaching about being enlightened, instead singing “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.” He’s searching for its meaning but never quite gets there. Instead, he advises the listener, “it’s up to you, the way you think.” I enjoyed the quirky spoken word section on “In The Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Paul Duncan, who also co-wrote the song. Other notable tracks were “See Me Through” and “Youth Of 1,000 Summers.”
One album that definitely stood the test of time for me is Hymns To The Silence (1991). This 90+ minute album spread over two CDs would not be a great introduction for the uninitiated, but for any fan of his earlier work who wants to further explore his catalog, this is as good as it gets. I’m not completely sure what makes it such a highlight for me, but I just love so many of the songs. “Professional Jealousy,” “Why Must I Always Explain,” the title track, his reverent cover of the Don Gibson hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (also a huge hit for one of Van’s idols, Ray Charles). It’s a collection of great songs that’s even better than the sum of its parts.
My favorite song is “Take Me Back,” the 9-minute track that closes out disc 1. Another example of Van revisiting his past when “the music on the radio has so much soul, and you listen, in the nighttime, while we’re still and quiet.” What really gets me about this song is how he often repeats a phrase (like the song title) over & over, sometimes 8-10 times, each utterance either driving the music or pulling it back, his vocal phrasing as good as any jazz singer. Here he’s a master of tension and release, and the song thrills me every time I hear it.
After such a career highlight, he released two solid if unremarkable studio albums: Too Long In Exile (1993) and Days Like This (1995). There are certainly good songs on each, but neither album drew me in. The arrangements are tight, Van’s vocals are as strong as ever, and he seems engaged in the material. Had they not immediately followed an album I love, my opinion might be different. The former album has a strong blues feel and great performances by Ronnie Johnson on lead guitar, Georgie Fame on Hammond organ, John Lee Hooker on guest vocals, and Van sounds especially inspired on “Lonely Avenue,” but at more than 77 minutes it could’ve used some editing. Perhaps there’s significance to the “Too Long” in the album title. Don’t get me wrong, though; this is a very good album, just not essential.
The latter album had three notable tracks, “No Religion,” “Melancholia” and the title track, with its obvious debt to the Shirelles classic “Mama Said (There’d Be Days Like This).” Not a major work in his catalog; a smooth sounding album with some very nice songs.
[Van Morrison – “Lonely Avenue”]
Van’s third official live album, the 2-CD A Night In San Francisco (1994), released between the two aforementioned albums, is a fantastic record. It should have been credited to Van Morrison And Friends or The Van Morrison Revue, as numerous guests pop up throughout the show, often taking lead vocals on songs originally sung by the man himself. This doesn’t take away any enjoyment for me, as there are some inspired performances. Included are featured sections for blues greats Junior Wells, Jimmy Witherspoon and John Lee Hooker, and Candy Dulfer plays killer sax throughout. Even Van’s 23-year-old daughter, Shana Morrison, performs vocals on “Beautiful Vision.” I really love the swing arrangement on “Moondance/My Funny Valentine.” At nearly 2-and-a-half hours, this seems to be a full representation of a Van Morrison show at that time. It’s better than his previous live album, Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast, if only because it covers a wider section of his career, new and old songs blending together seamlessly. This collection stands proudly with It’s Too Late To Stop Now…, his previous double live album from 20 years prior.
I’m about to revisit Van’s output from the late 1990’s, which includes a 2-CD rarities collection called The Philosopher’s Stone that I remember being very impressed with. I’ll post about those albums after I spend some quality time with them this week.