“Brown Eyed Girl” hit the radio waves 50 years ago. The hit became a landmark moment for its singer, Van Morrison, who had just left his home (Belfast) and his band (Them) to break out on his own. “Brown Eyed Girl” was a start, but it wasn’t what Morrison saw himself doing.
Throughout his career, Morrison has weaved into many genres, but the thread of deep spirituality has bound the pieces together. His perspectives have shifted dramatically -- from mystic poeticism to born-again Christianity and everything between, even dabbling in Scientology -- but it’s always there, and it’s part of what makes his catalog so fascinating.
Morrison is one of rock’s greatest poets, and no matter what he’s preaching or what the band’s playing, it’s profound and it’s certainly got soul.
“To be born again / To be born again / From the far side of the ocean," Morrison sings on the title track, signaling a personal reinvention; not only from his new home in America, but of rock music entirely. Astral Weeks is where it really begins. Morrison mixed the acoustic folk he had been playing in Boston coffee shops with a new jazz ensemble, featuring musicians who had played with the likes of Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Morrison showed the band his acoustic songs and told them to add what they felt. The classical guitar and flute flutter between string arrangements, Morrison’s spiritual poetry dancing atop, while Richard Davis’s double bass drives straight through, grounding it all. The songs are loose and free.
There’s no other record like Astral Weeks. Its 47 minutes seem to be over in the blink of an eye, leaving you questioning everything you knew about music.
While Astral Weeks was a loose exploration, Morrison ditched the jazz ensemble for a new band for its follow-up. Moondance is far more structured, though he hides that with the freewheeling imagery of gypsies and idyllic county fairs. His spirituality is in full force here, from the baptism of “And It Stoned Me” (“Oh the water/Let it run all over me”) to the gospel of “Brand New Day.”
Moondance would define what people would come to expect from a Van Morrison record: the swinging blue-eyed soul of an Northern Irish folk rocker enamored with early R&B. Side 1 is stacked with many of his best known songs: “And It Stoned Me,” “Moondance,” “Crazy Love,” “Caravan” and “Into the Mystic.” And side 2 is just as good. The dual saxophones of Jack Schroer and Collin Tilton keep the music from veering too far off into other genres, pulling the country rock of “Come Running” and the bluesy “These Dreams of You” right back into Morrison’s signature style.
Morrison seemed to have aged quite a bit by 1970. He began writing and producing everything himself, relying heavily on song structure instead of the jams of Astral Weeks. His Band and The Street Choir is a confident step in the same direction as Moondance, but Morrison loosens up his grip to create a freer, more organic record -- even leaving in some of the studio chatter. Moondance and His Band, released in the same year, are like twins. They share a lot of the same genetic makeup, but they both pull in different directions, eager to prove themselves.
Although always overshadowed by its multi-platinum sibling, His Band widens Van’s range. He runs through sax-filled soul rock on “Domino” (which topped even “Brown Eyed Girl” as his most successful single), folk on “Virgo Clowns,” and straight blues on “Sweet Jannie.” It’s loose and free but quintessentially Van.
Although he moved to Marin County, California, to record Tupelo Honey, Woodstock, N.Y. is at the heart of the album. Lyrically, Morrison revels in his pastoral life that fell apart as Woodstock became a hippie destination after the 1969 festival. The country waltz “(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball” finds him retreating to nature -- “Sometimes it gets so hard/ And everything, everything don’t seem to rhyme/ I take a walk out in my backyard and go.” And although he abandoned the full-blown country-and-western theme he had planned for Tupelo Honey, the twang survived. The swinging R&B of “Wild Night” is tempered with pedal steel guitar, and “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” bops with honky-tonk piano and slide guitar.
Morrison genre hops more blatantly than ever on Saint Dominic’s Preview. He comes out swinging on the opener, “Jackie Wilson Said,” awash with saxophones and one of the catchiest hooks Morrison has ever written. But he wastes no time switching to the flute-heavy “Gypsy” and the Ray Charles jazz of “I Will Be There.” Morrison plays each style so convincingly, it’s barely noticeable how wide he’s reaching. But these three are really just an aperitif for what comes next.
The last four tracks contain some of Morrison’s deepest moments. The 11-minute “Listen to the Lion” is surprisingly sparse. He manages to draw out the song’s minimal lyrics, repeating lines like “I shall search my soul” and “Lookin’ for a brand new start.” He changes each line slightly as he repeats, not in a trance, but magnetically drawn to each one. The title track and “Redwood Tree” owe much to Morrison’s new life in California but with more spirituality than anything on Tupelo Honey. The latter culminates with the lines “Won’t you keep us all from harm/ Wonderful redwood tree” delivered joyously like a gospel Thoreau. Similar to “Listen to the Lion,” album closer “Almost Independence Day” is a winding stream-of-consciousness epic. With only a few repeated words, Morrison leaves the listener completely in awe.
Morrison once said, “When I go into the studio, I’m a magician,” and working through this list, it’d be hard to argue against that. It seems obvious that he prefers the control of the studio to live performances where anything could go wrong. Even now, he has a reputation as an inconsistent performer, offering little to no banter between songs and often refusing to play the hits. But when he was on, he was untouchable.
It’s Too Late to Stop Now is Morrison’s Live at the Apollo. He fully embodies the soul singers he worshipped to deliver definitive versions of some of his songs -- looser than ever, throwing ad-libs like a preacher speaking in tongues. Van runs through his classics like “Domino” and “Wild Night” with feverish energy, even singing along with the horns on “These Dreams of You.” A few times on the record, he catches his breath with slower tunes like “Cypress Avenue” or “Saint Dominic’s Preview” before jumping right back with fire. The maddening energy peaks on “Gloria,” where Morrison shows himself transformed from garage-rock singer to showstopping rhythm-and-blues man.
Veedon Fleece is the ultimate hidden gem of Morrison’s catalog. Following the dissolution of his marriage, he returned to Ireland for first time since 1967. But Veedon Fleece isn’t really a breakup album -- Morrison already had a new fiancee at the time of his trip. It’s the sound of a man at a crossroads in his life, a wanderer coming home after a self-imposed exile, during which he failed to find a permanent place for himself.
The songs that take place in America deeply contrast with his descriptions of Ireland. “You can’t slow down and you can’t turn around/ And you can’t trust anyone,” he sings on “Who Was That Masked Man.” That paranoia comes right before the sunny description of Ireland on “Streets of Arklow” where he sings, “And our souls were clean/ And the grass did grow.” Side 2 especially basks in the warm nostalgia of home with songs like “Cul de Sac” and “Country Fair.” On “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River,” Morrison describes the search for the mythical “veedon fleece,” but musically he’s not searching, for the first time in years. He mostly treads through the jazzy folk he once covered on Astral Weeks, sounding more confident than ever.
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Wavelength immediately showers you with warmth. “So glad you made it, so glad you’re here,” Morrison sings on opener “Kingdom Hall,” the perfect greeting to what might be his most accessible record, packed start to finish with pop-rock classics.
Wavelength is Morrison’s first attempt at incorporating synths, but it’s still firmly a ‘70s record. The title track swims in warm synths, courtesy of Van’s former Them bandmate Peter Bardens, but they’re never the star. The guitar is high in the mix, right beneath Morrison’s voice and the gospel harmonies. The Band’s Garth Hudson bookends the album with electronics, tearing through a keyboard solo in “Kingdom Hall” and adding grand synths to closer “Take It Where You Find It,” but the organ and accordion on “Venice U.S.A.” keep Wavelength from wandering too far toward the sky. The album doesn’t rely too heavily on synths -- it’s a balancing act that’s prevented the record from sounding dated almost 40 years later.
After the commercial success of Wavelength, Morrison looked inward, turning to spiritual writing in a new way. Songs like “Full Force Gale,” which features a slide guitar solo from Ry Cooder, and “Rolling Hills” show him embracing Christianity for the first time in his music. The strings played by Toni Marcus complement the lyrics beautifully, but his signature horn swells and sax solos are still there.
His early records revolve around searching -- for a home, for love, for meaning -- but starting in the late ‘70s, he seems to have it all figured out. His point of view may change from album to album, but in the moment he delivers these perspectives as truth. And for that moment, you’ll believe him. In “Angeliou,” Morrison perfectly sums up why we listen to his records: “It wasn’t what you said/ But just the way it felt to me/ As I listened to your story/ About a search and a journey/ Somewhere inside/ Just like mine.”
Every Van Morrison collection needs something from Them. Both of their albums, The Angry Young Them and Them Again, were recently reissued, but if you manage to find one of the many compilations out there, you get the bonus of their non-album singles like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Richard Cory.”
In the two years they were together (1964 - 1966), Them recorded garage rock classics like “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.” The blues rock of his youth remains part of Morrison’s career even now, although tightened up considerably. Them’s music is an important document of a burgeoning young rock star about to become the Van Morrison we all know today.
Peter Cauvel is currently taking bets on what will bankrupt him first -- records or concert tickets.