Van Morrison has an extraordinary knack for inventing brick walls to butt his head against, whereas anybody else would just walk right through. If an explanation were asked for, Morrison, resting between blows, would most likely answer: “Because it’s there.” This artist has staked his whole career on a wrestle with the unnamable. And unless you’re sympathetic to such obsessions from the start, he can be a closed book — seemingly obscure, willful, often portentous, humorlessly full of himself. Morrison’s argument is intractable by definition: he can change lives, but only if they chance to rhyme with his.
Lately, though, Morrison has been trying to change himself — inwardly, by way of an evermore-overt turn toward Christianity, and outwardly, via a revitalization of his recording career. On Common One, there’s almost none of the knotty darkness and cryptically private imagery that have made him so difficult to many in the past. Instead, as befits the next step in his recent groping for serenity that began with the deck-clearing of Wavelength (1978) and continued on last year’s Into the Music, the current mood seems calm and soothing.
Yet, in other ways, Common One draws the line more starkly between those who take Morrison the only way he can be taken (on faith), and those who don’t take him at all. The material’s open-ended, eddying musical structures (two cuts clock in at over fifteen minutes each) practically eliminate the hooks and ledges of conventional rhythmic machinery, leaving your ears with next to nothing on which to cling. And if the lyrics — for the most part, bald homilies about living in the country and being happy — are simple enough on the surface, much of their significance is still locked inside Morrison’s head. In “Summertime in England,” one of the fifteen-minute epics, the singer’s penchant for the blandly pastoral is blended with a name-dropping guided tour of British poetry that initially sounds close to self-parody.
Since Van Morrison has always seen life as a mystic experience, his acceptance of orthodox Christianity can’t help but reduce him in scale. Religion regularizes his cosmology and solves the mysteries he’s forever chasing by offering the answers secondhand. In an everyday context, a line like “And the sufferin’ so fine” is striking. Put inside the box of Christian theology, however, it comes out not merely trite but distasteful.
What saves Morrison — and makes Common One, despite its narrowness, boring stretches and large and small retreats, impossible to dismiss — is his unwilling, embattled awareness that inner peace is every bit as demanding as emotional warfare. Time and again, he finds that nothing is more difficult than becoming simple, and this makes him seem, paradoxically. more hermitically alone than ever. Morrison is attempting to explain his discoveries to an old audience (or a former self) from which he now feels isolated, but he’s also unable to join the new flock. What at first sounds like the work of a complacent man turns out, comically and affectingly, to be that of a man who desperately wishes he could be complacent.
All this emerges almost by accident. The LP’s overt theme is flat and unconvincing, while the real action is on the periphery. Van Morrison is a great singer who’s probably never thought of music in formal or even dramatic terms. Instead, he’s searched for a style that would follow, as faithfully as possible, whatever he was thinking to wherever that might lead. On Common One, he’s recruited jazz veteran Pee Wee Ellis for the sound he needs, not only giving the saxophonist full sway over the horn arrangements and overall musical direction but making him the other “voice” in Morrison’s dialogues with himself. Against a spare, near-static backdrop of churchy organ, intermittent guitar and jittery, off-the-beat percussion. Ellis’ terse and acrid sax shadows the singer, asking questions and casting doubts. In “Haunts of Ancient Peace,” the sax weaves in and out like lights glimpsed from a ship at sea, welcoming you one minute and then abruptly warning you off the reefs. At song’s end, Ellis manages, in a few short, sour notes, to undercut every claim to calmness that Morrison has made.
In the same way, Morrison’s singing sometimes contradicts his central message. He’ll often hone in on lines or images that look like throwaways on the lyric sheet. In “Summertime in England,” his physical, uncontainable delight at the words “You’ll be happy dancin'” (and surprise, too, as if he’d forgotten about the dancing and was glad it was there) communicates the specific rapture he’s been reaching for far better than all the ponderous fluff about “your red robe dangling” and being “high in the art of sufferin’.” As a framing reference, that list of poets in “Summertime in England” is nowhere near as apt or fresh as Moondance‘s “Ray Charles was shot down but he got up.” Instead, it’s more like a lout’s idea of one-upmanship. (When Morrison asks, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge?” you wonder what would happen if you said, “Yeah.”) But it succeeds anyway, because it’s funny — especially when the singer starts running through the names distractedly, snapping his fingers like a man checking a grocery list. Which is, of course, exactly what he’s doing: shopping for usable myths.
Only in “Satisfied,” though, does the simplicity that Morrison is striving for arrive as something natural and effortless, as a gift of grace. Again, the best line comes out of left field. The artist’s boast. “I got my karma from here right to New York,” scores not because it makes sense (it doesn’t) but because it’s such a wonderfully absurd bit of blues bragging in a tradition that goes all the way back to Robert Johnson. Van Morrison’s singing and Pee Wee Ellis’ stylized, beautifully modulated horn charts here are very reminiscent of Al Green’s later work. But Morrison reinvents Green the same way he reinvented Ray Charles, finding his feeling in the other man’s technique and his technique in the other man’s feeling. (While it’s a sketchier, less-definitive disc. Common One is, in a way, Morrison’s version of Green’s amazing The Belle Album.)
If “Satisfied” is Common One‘s sole masterpiece, the record’s most revelatory moment is located elsewhere. Because language is Morrison’s passion, lyrics are a battle and a torture for him, and throughout the LP. he equates serenity with silence. In the opening composition, he’s grateful for “the words we do not need to speak,” and ends side one by asking. “Can you feel the silence?” But in the middle of “When Heart Is Open,” the album’s rather overblown and meandering finale, the singer suddenly veers off into a wordless half-groan/half-wail, distorted to hyena pitch by a harmonica. All at once, this naked, ragged noise of animal terror brings everything the record has been trying to avoid up to the surface like a drowned corpse who, despite what he thought his convictions were, can’t rest peacefully. It’s a moment of tremendous emotional and musical daring, and Morrison hurries past it: when he hums the same notes at the fade, they’re simply the sound of a workingman glad that his job is done.
But the memory lingers, and that moment is the key to Common One: the lone admission that, even in a new life, heaven is kept alive only by the possibility of hell. Thankfully, this is something that Van Morrison, no matter how hard he tries, can’t ever forget.