Beautiful Vision

Last winter at the Great American Music Hall, Van Morrison shushed his band to a whisper and let the Bay Are a faithful in on a secret: "Listen to the quiet ... that silence is the heart" — or did he say "art"? — "of my songs." On the farewell fade of "When Heart Is Open" from 1981's Common One, Morrison's moody moans locked horns with that same solitude, and it sounded as if he'd been abandoned at midnight to sweep the echoes from the studio. "Number thirty-six," Morrison boasts, referring to his age amid the serious silliness (and vice versa) of Beautiful Vision's "Cleaning Windows." "What's my life?" asks the man who's followed many paths to seek a few basic answers. "I have been cleaning windows," he continues. "Take my time, I'll see you when my love grows/Don't let it slide, I'm a working man in my prime/Cleaning windows."

Morrison aficionados (those likely to be on their fourth copies of Astral Weeks and Moondance) have long known to ask of a new record: is it mellifluously introspective or upbeat and self-absorbed? But since his last demonstrably Astral Weeks-like work (1974's Veedon Fleece), Morrison has mixed his palette and blurred these distinctions. What's remained constant is his emotional blending of the heart's romantic and spiritual concerns. For Van Morrison, romance is religion, and there's nothing more religious than a woman. Beautiful Vision is so emphatically half-great that if you dumped the four bad tunes, put the borderline case on hold and didn't judge the instrumental, the LP's sequential and thematic integrity would be strengthened. What's left — "Celtic Ray," "Dweller on the Threshold," "Cleaning Windows," "Across the Bridge where Angels Dwell" — is a cogent statement of belief that finds Morrison touching his dangerously dogmatic themes with the grace of God.

Van Morrison's honey-cut blues voice aims for an emotional Esperanto, so it's no surprise that the words Celtic, Aryan and Scandinavia crop up in song titles. "Celtic Ray" opens the album like a sunrise. Adorned with jazzy bagpipes and a rich, rhythmic hook in the chorus, the composition moves from a bucolic morning into an evening of dark vearning. Morrison hears the mothers calling the children and recognizes their maternal voice — is it the call of love? family? country? "How could you leave America? How could you let me down?" asked Morrison in "Street Choir." Today, he's grateful that Europe hasn't let him down. And he's forgiven America, too.

"I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon," sings the Irish soul man in delicious self-harmony in "Cleaning Windows," nodding to those American artists as he did to William Blake and other eternals. The night questioned all of their souls, and "Dweller on the Threshold" finds fellow disciple Morrison expressing his love-lust with Biblical fervor. He's a realistic creature, possessing both doubt ("I have seen without perceiving I have been another man") and faith ("I will sing the songs of ages/And the dawn will end the night"). Swinging atop a staccato horn arrangement, Morrison is seduced by the search, and when he innocently wishes to "travel even higher," the romantic effect is just like Jackie Wilson said.

Hung on a metaphor as clear as glass, "Cleaning Windows" applies one night's notions to a lifetime. It's the LP's musical highlight as well, with a guitar-organ combination reminiscent of the Band, and a jumping sax solo to boot. Shaking himself awake each morning, the dedicated romantic looks to see how he's grown. Peppered with fraternal details that recall "And It Stoned Me," "Cleaning Windows" boldly restates the self-help maxim that you are your own best friend.

As sure as the work bell signals quitting time, the satisfied mind must eventually look "Across the Bridge where Angels Dwell." His voice floating above chiming guitars and rippling flutes, Van Morrison effectively resolves Beautiful Vision's song cycle with this tune. (The concluding instrumental, "Scandinavia," is used as a laconic coda.) "Across the bridge where angels he," he sings, "children play." Here's where the kids went in "Celtic Ray," but their mothers needn't worry, because even beyond death's door, little boys like Morrison find comfort in the company of women.

"Aryan Mist" is the best of the lesser numbers, and its talk of "gurus from the East, gurus from the West" underscores the international nature of Morrison's concerns. Though heavy-handed, it's positively lightweight compared to "She Gives Me Religion," in which the singer is like a poker player showing the dealer his cards. Eschewing art for the obvious. Morrison's baldlaced lyrics belittle the organic depth of the album's finest compositions. The three female backup singers, whose stilted style is lethal when they serve as more than window dressing, toss additional salt into the wound.

Similar damage is inflicted on "Vanlose Stairway," though a moment of grace is achieved when the artist follows a guttural request to "send me your Bible" with "send me your guitar." Van Morrison's voice can usually salvage even his most tepid material, but nothing less than a rewrite could save "Northern Muse (Solid Ground)," a dizzying string of clichés from Morrison himself ("She makes me whole ... lifts me up, fills my cup") and others (including Bob Dylan's "If you see her, say hello"). The effect is that of a man looking for his romantic roots and tripping over his shoelaces.

When Morrison covered Ray Charles' "I Believe to My Soul" on 1974's live It's Too Late to Stop Now, he was testifying to the same female mystic as on Beautiful Vision. Sometimes he stumbles when he lets his brain trivialize his heart. His successes, however, stand tall above a general stream of transient pop that wouldn't know soul from strawberries. Glamour is the LP's buzzword (the liner notes refer to a book called Glamour: a World Problem), but Van Morrison remains impervious to fickle fashion. He is simply one of rock & roll's greatest singers, and his special charm is that he's not too proud to clean windows.

From The Archives Issue 715: August 24, 1995