Like Bob Dylan, perhaps the only living rock songwriter who has matched the breadth of his vision and his impact, Van Morrison set an early standard that led followers to anticipate each new project with intense expectations. Like Dylan, too, Morrison has risked dashing such expectations with questionable choices — including the choice to make records with a prolificacy that would exhaust even the most persistent muse.
Hymns to the Silence is a particularly ambitious move on Morrison's part, a double album of mostly original material that follows his most recent album, the excellent Enlightenment, by less than a year. Like Enlightenment, Hymns draws on such typical Morrison obsessions as nostalgia, wanderlust and the quest for spiritual and carnal fulfillment. "See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk With Thee)" expands on "See Me Through" and "In the Days Before Rock 'n' Roll," Enlightenment's wistful reflections on Morrison's youth; the sequel sounds more didactic, though, featuring a sermonlike recitation about the purity of life "before rock 'n' roll, before television" shouted over a traditional gospel song. Hymns' opening track, the deceptively breezy "Professional Jealousy," is equally solemn and even more judgmental, asserting that those who succeed through hard work and perseverance are often subject to bitter resentment and "black propaganda."
Look past tirades like these, however, and you'll find moments of bittersweet longing and abundant joy. "Carrying a Torch" has the makings of a classic, with a stately chorus and shining verses that tie the flesh to the spirit: "You're the keeper of the flame/And you burn so bright/Baby why don't we re-connect/Move into the light." "Green Mansions" alludes to a similar kind of deliverance, envisioning a metaphoric haven "high upon a hill/In the countryside ... Free from the glamour of the world ... Where my baby can be found." And the gently ticking "Quality Street" sees such desires coming to fruition: "I thank God for sending me you," Morrison sings, with a restraint that conveys both serenity and awe.
Musically, Hymns taps into most of the varied sources that Morrison has incorporated through the years. A Celtic strain runs through much of the album, becoming prominent on "Village Idiot," a poignant ballad with lyrics evoking "Fool on the Hill," and on a version of the traditional hymn "Be Thou My Vision" featuring members of the Chieftains on pipes and whistle. "Ordinary Life" is straight-ahead blues, though, and "So Complicated" and the ebullient "All Saints Day" offer swinging R&B in the spirit of Ray Charles (whose Don Gibson-penned hit "I Can't Stop Loving You" is covered, also with the Chieftains). "It Must Be You" has a light-jazz feel, but Morrison's rapturous vocal imbues the track with vitality.
Morrison's emotive singing cannot, unfortunately, rescue "Take Me Back," which strives for urgency through repetition — something Morrison achieved radiantly on Astral Weeks and Saint Dominic's Preview — but ends up merely sounding repetitious. The spoken meditations "Pagan Streams" and "On Hyndford Street" feel similarly overwrought. Still, even in its weaker spots, Hymns to the Silence brims with the consistent passion that continues to make Morrison fascinating.