A Sense Of Wonder is a plateau for Van Morrison: his first record for his new label, it draws upon and summarizes the last four albums he made for Warner Bros., which documented a period of spiritual awakening. Each of those records focused upon a different aspect of Morrison’s religiosity — rebirth (Into the Music); deep contemplation and meditation (Common One); ecstasy and humility (Beautiful Vision); and blissful, mantralike languor (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart). A Sense of Wonder is a grand act of synthesis and overview, affirming the artist’s sense of place and self in terms of his Celtic roots.
Over the years, Morrison has gathered around him a band that plays, like the best jazz ensembles, with effortless empathy. The group follows him through all his moods and meanderings, from the lilting cadences of “Tore Down à la Rimbaud” and “Ancient of Days” to the stately auguring of “Let the Slave” (set to a text by William Blake) and the airy, triumphal shimmer of “A New Kind of Man.” On two other songs, Morrison is accompanied by an ensemble called Moving Hearts, which plays in a more traditional Irish vein. In “A Sense of Wonder” Morrison calls out a jumble of street names, colors, characters and raw, unintellectualized feelings in the free-associative style of James Joyce and Morrison’s own Astral Weeks.
As usual, Morrison offers praise to his literary idols, invoking Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake, and honors his jazz-soul mentors as well, covering both Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do without You” and Mose Allison’s “If You Only Knew.” In Morrison’s hands, the former composition becomes a hymn of gratitude and confession. “If You Only Knew,” unfortunately, is a petulant complaint sung in a manner too derivative of Allison’s bohemian-jazzbo style; it sours, for a moment, the exquisite grace of the record. As it happens, the song was a last-minute replacement for “Crazy Jane on God” (based on the poem by William Butler Yeats), which was dropped when Yeats’ estate denied Morrison permission to use the text (the estate gives permission only to classical musicians). It’s a shame, since the deleted song’s refrain — “All things remain in God” — and Morrison’s extraordinary musical setting evoked the revelatory wonder and mystery at the heart of the LP. But “The Master’s Eyes,” which counterpoints a beatific affirmation of belief (“How the light shone from the master’s eyes”) with a sepulchral brooding (“Why didn’t they leave us to wander through buttercup summers?”), is ample compensation. Overall, A Sense of Wonder is serenely uplifting. With astonishing commitment and profound belief, Van Morrison continues to push forward into the mystic.