Van Morrison

     Blowin' Your Mind (Bang, 1967)
      Astral Weeks (Warner Bros., 1968)
      Moondance (Warner Bros., 1970)
     His Band and the Street Choir (Warner Bros., 1970)
      Tupelo Honey (Warner Bros., 1971)
      Saint Dominic's Preview (Warner Bros., 1972)
   Hard Nose the Highway (Warner Bros., 1973)
     T.B. Sheets (Bang, 1973)
      It's Too Late to Stop Now (Warner Bros., 1974)
      Veedon Fleece (Warner Bros., 1974)
   A Period of Transition (Warner Bros., 1977)
    Wavelength (Warner Bros., 1978)
    Into the Music (Warner Bros., 1979)
   Common One (Warner Bros., 1980)
   Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros., 1982)
   Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (Warner Bros., 1983)
   A Sense of Wonder (Mercury, 1985)
     Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (Mercury, 1985)
   No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (Mercury, 1986)
   Poetic Champions Compose (Mercury, 1987)
     Irish Heartbeat (Mercury, 1988)
     Avalon Sunset (Mercury, 1989)
      The Best of Van Morrison (Mercury, 1990)
    Enlightenment (Mercury, 1990)
      Bang Masters (Epic, 1991)
    Hymns to the Silence (Mercury, 1991)
     Too Long in Exile (Polydor, 1993)
     The Best of Van Morrison, Vol. 2 (Polydor, 1993)
     A Night in San Francisco (Polydor, 1994)
    Days Like This (Polydor, 1995)
   How Long Has This Been Going On (Verve, 1996)
   The Healing Game (Polydor, 1997)
     New York Sessions '67 (Recall, 1997)
     The Philosopher's Stone (Polydor, 1998)
   Back on Top (Polydor, 1999)
    The Skiffle Sessions (Polydor, 2000)
    You Win Again (Polydor, 2000)
     Down the Road (Polydor, 2002)
    What's Wrong With This Picture? (Polydor, 2003)
     Magic Time (Geffen, 2005)
     Live at Austin City Limits Festival (Exile, 2006)
     Pay The Devil (Lost Highway, 2006)
    Van Morrison at the Movies: Soundtrack Hits (EMI, 2007)
    The Best of Van Morrison, Vol. 3 (EMI, 2007)
     Still On Top: The Greatest Hits (Polydor, 2007)
    Keep It Simple (Lost Highway, 2008)
      Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Listen To The Lion, 2009)

Them     Them (Parrot, 1965)
     Them Again (Parrot, 1966)
     The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison (PolyGram, 1998)

The Irish have no kings, and no Irish knee has ever bowed before one, so it will never do to call Van Morrison the king of the Celtic blues singers. But it's tempting. For over 40 years, Van the Man has worked his unique style, mixing a soulful Irish growl with poetic rambles inspired by Lead Belly, Ray Charles, Dylan, and Yeats. An eccentric recluse with a mean stare, Morrison started as the singer for Them, the Belfast garage-rock band who did the huge hit "Gloria" as well as lesser-knowns like "One Two Brown Eyes," "Bring 'Em On In," and "My Lonely Sad Eyes." There have been countless Them repackages over the years; The Story of Them is almost the complete works on two CDs. Just don't bother with any Them compilation that leaves out Van's first great song, "Friday's Child."

He made his solo debut with Blowin' Your Mind, in sessions later repackaged as T.B. Sheets, Bang Masters, and New York Sessions '67. He scat-sings his dark, brooding poetry in "He Ain't Give You None," slurring "you can leave now if you don't like what's happening," either to his girlfriend or his band. "Brown Eyed Girl" became a hit, sung off-key by generations of drunk Tri-Sigmas in Myrtle Beach ever since. But most striking was the ten-minute guitar/organ blues groove "T.B. Sheets," in which Morrison sang of watching a lover die of tuberculosis, sometimes singing as the dying woman, sometimes as the lover left behind, snarling "gotta go" over and over. A strange, sick, obsessive song, announcing a major artist.

After a down-and-out stint in Boston, Morrison made his most beautiful and intense album, Astral Weeks. The sound is almost all acoustic, with guitars, stand-up bass, brushed drums, and occasional strings or horns, as Van rants and raves about death ("Astral Weeks"), sex ("Sweet Thing"), lost love ("Beside You"), and childhood memories of Belfast ("Madame George"). His lyrics are full of pain, but he keeps taking off to chant incantations like "you breathe in, you breathe out" or, again, "gotta go." It's impossible to categorize, and it was hard to sell, but despite initial commercial failure Astral Weeks is an album that still floors musicians and converts new fans, and it's the basis of Morrison's legend.

For Moondance, Morrison came up with the smooth style that made him most famous, a mellow, piano-based hybrid of pop, jazz, and Irish folk. He sings gentle reveries ("And It Stoned Me," "Caravan"), seductive piano ballads ("Crazy Love") and a romantic ode to a polluted and foul Boston-area river ("Into the Mystic"). His voice is intimate, warm, making Moondance one of the most rampantly made-out-to of all rock classics. It's also one of the most famously front-loaded—the first five songs are perfect, but until the CD era, nobody ever played Side Two. "Brand New Day" is pretty good, however.

His Band and the Street Choir was a lighter version of Moondance, short on songs but kicking off with the great "Domino" and ending with the fierce "Street Choir." Tupelo Honey is loose and wild fun, Van's only really cheery-sounding album. He celebrates domestic bliss in rural California with the country charm of "When That Evening Sun Goes Down," the huge title ballad, and "Wild Night," a rocker that celebrates the girls who walk by dressed up for each other, while the inside jukebox roars out just like thunder.

When the marriage broke up, Van responded with St. Dominic's Preview, a concept album about feeling homesick in America, looking back on Ireland from California but finding only miles and miles of loneliness in between. The songs combine the bleak melancholy of Astral Weeks with the light touch of Moondance; he misses with the closing dirge "Almost Independence Day," but he rollicks away in the uptempo R&B stomp of "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)," "Redwood Tree," "I Will Be There," and the powerhouse title track. But the only good song on Hard Nose the Highway was his bizarre version of Kermit the Frog's Sesame Street classic, "Bein' Green." As a Protestant kid from Belfast, Van's technically Orange, not Green, but it's still a landmark of Muppet soul.

It's Too Late to Stop Now is a warm live album, with an orchestra, vintage blues covers, and vivid band-crowd interaction. It peaks with "Saint Dominic's Preview" and "Listen to the Lion," where the music ebbs away slowly, instrument by instrument, until one fan breaks a roomful of silence by crying out, "All right!" Veedon Fleece was another commercial flop, but it was the culmination of everything Van was doing up to that point, all Celtic mystic tumult in the vocals and pastoral beauty in the music. He sums up his vocal reach in the bearlike blues growl of "Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights" and the soft falsetto of "Who Was That Masked Man?" The lyrics are even more eccentric than usual ("Tell me, oh Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau") but Veedon Fleece ranks with Astral Weeks and St. Dominic's Preview as his most majestic music.

Van spent three years in seclusion, returning with the shrill, clumsy Period of Transition. Wavelength was a failed mainstream pop move, but the title track was a worthy hit, which like many of his best songs expresses the profound spiritual yearning to listen to the radio. Into the Music was hailed by many as a creative comeback, but it sounds stuffy and ornate, with too many violin solos; the one killer is a cover of the Fifties oldie "It's All in the Game." Morrison hit a painful slump in the Eighties, starting with the jazzy religious blather of Common One and Beautiful Vision. Inarticulate Speech, A Sense of Wonder, No Guru, and Poetic Champions are cranky self-imitation. Best of Van Morrison, Volume 2 preserves some great songs from this period—the live "Rave On, John Donne," "Tore Down a la Rimbaud"—but Morrison seemed to suck the life out of his past glories. On No Guru, he complains about how you don't understand him because you live in an "Ivory Tower," though he obviously hadn't listened to any music in years except his own.

But on Irish Heartbeat, a collection of standards with the Chieftains, Morrison kicked up his heels—you would have expected him to do an appropriately soulful "Carrickfergus" or "She Moved Through the Fair," but who would have expected him to have so much fun with "Marie's Wedding"? Avalon Sunset was a modest breakthrough that has been paying off for him ever since. The music wasn't radically different from his recent work—the same scat-singing poetics about love and God over easy-rolling folk rock—but the voice, the songwriting, and the spirit all had a renewed sense of uplift, especially "Coney Island." After years of letting his audience down, Morrison found himself back in touch with a thriving cult, and The Best of Van Morrison was a well-timed summary.

After that, Van kept remaking the same album for several years, usually with at least a couple of worthy songs. Hymns to the Silence and Enlightenment are the most complex and self-involved; Too Long in Exile is the breeziest, including three duets with John Lee Hooker; Back on Top has "When the Leaves Come Falling Down"; Days Like This has "Songwriter" ("I'm a songwriter and I'm hot on your trail/I'm a songwriter and my check's in the mail").

For non-diehard fans, there may be little point trying to tell the recent albums apart—you don't need any of them unless you need all of them. But Down the Road and What's Wrong With This Picture? offer treats like the telling "Hey Mr. DJ" ("Play me something/That I know"), a moving rendition of "Georgia on My Mind," and "What Makes the Irish Heart Beat," which deserves to become a pub standard. On Magic Time Van vows to "Keep Mediocrity At Bay," even though "They Sold Me Out," because they can't kill the "Gypsy In My Soul." But he shines in the astral "Celtic New Year" and the hiliarously grumpy theme song "Just Like Greta" ("I want to be alone"). Pay The Devil is his ineffably Irish collection of country covers—on Bill Anderson's 1964 "Once a Day," he abandons his usual bravado to sound scared and forlorn. On Keep It Simple, Van shockingly reveals he's not much of a social type ("Don't Go To Nightclubs Any More"), chats up the gods ("Behind The Ritual"), and gets freaky in the tantric-sex ditty "That's Entrainment." (Not "entertainment" Van's singing about neurobiology, of course.)

A Night in San Francisco is a good 1994 live album, up there with It's Too Late to Stop Now and 1986's Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast, and a document of what a marvelous live performer the old man remains. The Skiffle Sessions is a strange live collaboration with Fifties old-timers Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber, while You Win Again is an even stranger set of mostly Jerry Lee Lewis covers sung with the Killer's daughter, Linda Gail Lewis. Live At Austin City Limits has stunning versions of "Muleskinner Blues" and "Big Blue Diamonds." In 2008, Van did a series of concerts no fan would have dared hope for—covering Astral Weeks all the way through, with original guitarist Jay Berliner. Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl revamps the classic with extra solos and vocal flights, expanding "Slim Slow Slider" into an 8-minute meditation that sails into the mystic and out the other side.

For Van compilations, The Best of Van Morrison is a good place to start. Still On Top: The Greatest Hits is a three-CD box that goes too heavy on the late material, with just one tune from Veedon Fleece and nada from Astral Weeks; Best of Van Morrison Vol. 3 offers a previously unreleased "Tupelo Honey" duet with Bobby "Blue" Bland. Van Morrison at the Movies: Soundtrack Hits collects his strangely soulful 1990 version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" (featured in The Departed), yet it cheats by not including "T.B. Sheets" from Scorcese's Bringing Out The Dead, still the sharpest cinematic use of a Van tune. The Philosopher's Stone collects outtakes, and after so many prolific spleen-venting years, who knew Van had outtakes?

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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