Hope’s what they send you for a speedy recovery. Or it’s what incumbent presidents warm up like leftovers just before election year. High and plural, it’s what parents forever hold for children, and what’s forever being confounded, disappointed or dashed. Low and singular, it’s the guy next to Crosby in all those Road pictures.
If you were happy in high school, maybe hope was your first date for the dance. And if you’re Van Morrison, she must be a brown-eyed girl. Name of Angeliou, according to Into the Music, another wonderful record from Van the Man.
Robbie Robertson called him that in a moment of offhand inspiration when Morrison unexpectedly danced and kicked his way offstage during the Last Waltz performances in San Francisco. It suits, too — catches the quickness, the racy grace of the guy, the potency and surprise. Such an affectionate nickname might miss the darkness and the turbulence, but these days that only means it fits just right. On Into the Music, the storm passes. The turbulence here is “a full force gale” that stands as a metaphor for conversion and renewal. That’s what this album is about, proudly and stunningly and with no apologies. Resurrection. Real hope.
Some of the boldness of Into the Music comes from the kind of realization, simple but crucial as a heartbeat, that Bruce Springsteen tries hard to hold on to, and puts so well: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” The particular power of Van Morrison’s new LP draws, I think, from certain reservoirs of contained pain, from a past full of turmoil that’s turned around on itself and is now used to shade and underline the brightness so that this new light shines in sharper relief. Morrison’s given hope a thematic legitimacy it hasn’t had for quite some time. He’s taken it away from the politicians and preachers, the greeting-card versifiers and quick-change hawkers of the higher consciousness. Into the Music is a record of splendid peace.
Songs like “Bright Side of the Road,” which gets the album off to a joyous start, or “And the Healing Has Begun,” a slow and sensual confessional, could easily curdle under other auspices, turn as sappy as a smile button. Still singing with all the resonances of “T.B. Sheets” and “Cyprus Avenue,” still invoking the half-mystic, half-playful spirit of “Moondance” and “Glad Tidings,” Morrison dances well away from that sort of swampy territory, where you can get sucked under by sentiment. Into the Music is as adept as last year’s Wavelength, but more settled and specific, and all the better for it. Morrison’s making music about a kind of spirituality that’s not smothering but enhancing, that “lifts you up again” (like that full-force gale) instead of lulling you with pretty parables and buying you off with empty promises for the future.
There’s much beauty on this LP, but very little that’s simply pretty. Into the Music, a chronicle of growth, is the sort of record you can grow with. If that makes it religious, then it’s religious and the hell with it. But it’s religious only in the most emotional, universal sense. Van Morrison isn’t looking for converts, and he’s not waving his finger in your face. He’s always been too much the maverick to make a good prophet, too much the Celtic poet ever to be a preacher. He’s also smart enough, and still tough enough, to know that what gives hope its foundation and legitimacy is a background of danger, of hopelessness. That’s the background Wavelength had now and then. On Into the Music, you hear it straight through.
Side one is an invocation and a celebration that moves straight ahead, as the first tune puts it, “From the dark end of the street/To the bright side of the road,” stepping lightly to some nimble harmonies by Katie Kissoon and Herbie Armstrong. “Full Force Gale” — which is about getting picked up again, dusted off and set right — is stoked by a stunning bottleneck-guitar solo by Ry Cooder. That’s another thing about Van the Man. He goes for the best. The musicianship on this album — particularly that of Toni Marcus on assorted string instruments, Mark Jordan on keyboards and Mark Isham on horns — is as accomplished as on Wavelength, as lively as on Moondance.
“Full Force Gale” and “Rolling Hills” are the two songs that are specifically about God. The Lord does the lifting up in the first; in the second, He’s a pantheistic presence: “Among the rolling hills I’ll live my life in Him/Oh I will live my life in Him among the rolling hills.” In the printed lyrics to both tunes, the Lord rates capitalization. Morrison doesn’t sing it quite the same way, however. He stays pretty casual about it, just setting these thoughts down as reflections, not as part of a recruiting drive.
Besides, he’s up to something a little different and more ambitious here than a tent meeting. He’s trying to close the big circle, as the other songs on the first side suggest and as side two makes plain. “Stepping Out Queen” introduces a womanly spirit who’ll appear throughout Into the Music in various guises as muse, helpmate, liberator. As Angeliou. In “Stepping Out Queen,” she’s someone who’s shared separately some of Morrison’s dark nights: “Well you go through the drama/And you work in the dharma/Then you stand up and wipe your mirror clean.” In “You Make Me Feel So Free,” which closes out side one, she’s direct inspiration, mistress and muse — and the occasion for a funny, rueful confidence: “I heard them say that you can have your cake and eat it/But all I wanted was one free lunch.”
Side two, beginning with “Angeliou,” brings the big reach back. This woman, met one May day in Paris, tells a story that “reminded me so much of myself/It wasn’t what you said but the way it felt to me/About a search and a journey just like mine.” It’s not so much that Into the Music‘s compositions are continuous as that they seem to evolve into one another. “And the Healing Has Begun,” following “Angeliou,” takes that song farther on, mixes spiritual mending with lovemaking and Easter with “backstreet jellyroll,” bows both to the godhead and the maidenhead, with time out for a fast salute to Muddy Waters. A pulverizing rendition of Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All in the Game,” delivered in a style that might be called high-requiem soul, puts everything in perspective, the pain as well as the triumph. It’s there as a sort of sweet caution, just the way that the last tune, “You Know What They’re Writing About,” stands as a summary and makes clear that Into the Music is a vastly ambitious attempt to reconcile various states of grace: physical, spiritual and artistic.
Both “You Know What They’re Writing About” and side one’s “Troubadours” (with its wistful penny-whistle sound provided by Robin Williamson of the late Incredible String Band) concern themselves with songwriting as an act of lyric passion and as a way of testifying to a certain continuity, to a kind of rescuing wisdom. “You Know What They’re Writing About” ends the LP with an injunction (“Meet me down by the river/Meet me down by the water…/Meet me down by the pylons”) that uses one of Morrison’s favorite images — water — as an invitation to wholeness.
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In that Into the Music is brave and unexpected and reflective, it’s much of a piece with all of Morrison’s previous work. He’s taken us on some pretty treacherous journeys, full of dark routes, deep magic, bleak despair. No reason not to settle with him, for a time, in the region of light. One of the singer’s most abundant gifts has always been his ability to be a sort of Gaelic shaman and guide. No matter how obscure things got — whether listening to the lions or watching the ballerina or figuring how Linden Arden stole the highlights — he could always make them seem familiar. You recognized the neighborhood right away, even if you couldn’t find the exact address of Madame George’s. He makes the new territory on Into the Music no less vital, and no less like home.
It comes down to this: Van Morrison’s come through. And even though he’s landed in a different place, he’s still taking the big risks. He’s a trapeze artist. There’s a particularly trying stunt called the salto mortale, in which the performer turns a somersault in midair and lands back on the tightrope. That’s Morrison’s finest trick, and he does it without a net. The spirituality on this record isn’t used for safety but to keep him flying. That’s his greatness, and the greatness you hear on Into the Music. He’s a death defier.