Long ago, Van Morrison reached that point where the influences on his music no longer mattered. It is as pointless to attempt to detect those influences as it would be for any musician to try to imitate him.
Van Morrison’s music cannot really be imitated, because, as with Dylan’s music, what one hears is not style, but personality. With each record — Them Again, Astral Weeks, or Moondance — one gets a sense that Van has achieved some ancient familiarity with his band and with his songs; no matter how the music changes, the long inventions of Van’s singing, his full command of the musicians that play with him, and the striking imagination of a consciousness that is visionary in the strongest sense of the word create an atmosphere that instantly sets its own terms. Morrison’s powers are clear: his strong gift for melody, his ability to move freely within virtually any sort of contemporary instrumentation, his verbal magic as inventive and literate as Dylan’s, and most of all, the authenticity of his spirit.
Moondance is his first album in over a year. Unlike Van’s masterful Astral Weeks, this one will be immensely popular; Van’s picture already fills the windows of record stores and his new music is getting more airplay on FM stations than anything in recent memory.
Van’s new album might send one back to the bright enthusiasm of “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the magic blues of Them Again; Van now sings with a magnetically full electric band, complete with piano, organ, vibes, and intricately controlled saxophones and flute. The band’s performance has a stately brilliance; and if it recaptures some of the feeling of the earlier music, the past is serving as a rite of passage toward the celebrations of Moondance.
Van opens with “And It Stoned Me,” a tale of boys out for a day’s freedom, standing in the rain with eyes and mouths open, heads bent back: “Oh, the water, let it run all over me …” The sensuality of this song is overpowering, communicated with a classical sort of grace. “And it stoned me/To my soul/Stoned me just like jelly roll …” There is no strain for meaning in Van’s words or in his voice. “Let it run all over me …” — you feel the exhilaration almost with a sense of astonishment. The band, playing subtle, gentle rock and roll, surrounds the singer; here, as everywhere on Moondance, the horn arrangements are absolutely exquisite, as eloquent as a sermon in a backwoods chapel.
With “Caravan” one might begin to remember the early Impressions: that instantaneous aura of fantasy and desire that Curtis Mayfield created for “Gypsy Woman” tumbles down again as a fanfare on piano and the roll of drums and guitar open a composition of seductive grandeur. “Caravan” is a strange song; the images are easily real and the music is profoundly comforting, yet there’s the edge of a story here that fades without ever revealing all it has to tell. “Now the caravan has all friends/Yes, they’ll stay with me until the end … Gypsies … tell me all I need to know …” Woven between the fragments and framed by the textures of the horn section is a love tale, drawn with blazing imagination: “Turn up your radio/And let me/Hear the song/Turn on your electric light/So we can get down/To what is really wrong.” The singer moves from the gypsy campfire to his lover and back again, with a lovely sort of affection. Van’s singing is pure expression, pure sound; the band moves off and then forward again. A graceful soprano saxophone holds notes behind Van’s words: “Now, the caravan is painted red and white/That means everyone is staying overnight …”
“It’s a good thing he doesn’t have much stage presence,” said a friend after watching Van perform this song. “Otherwise it’d be too much to take.”
“Into the Mystic” is the heart of Moondance; the music unfolds with a classic sense of timing, guitar strums fading into watery notes on a piano, the bass counting off the pace. The lines of the song and Morrison’s delivery of them are gorgeous: “I want to rock your gypsy soul/Just like in the days of old/And magnificently we will fold/Into the mystic.” The transcendent purity of the imagery seems to turn endlessly, giving back one’s own reflection. Van’s more abstract songs are mosiacs of brilliantly chosen metaphors — ambiguous and instantly recognizable. Morrison communicates directly even when he is most obscure; his visions have power, and the ambiguity of that vision is always unified by the sympathy of the music — there is no “back-up band” on Moondance anymore than there is on “Lay Lady Lay.” Something’s been made; it stands, it won’t be broken down.
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Perhaps “Glad Tidings,” which ends Moondance, is the song that most makes one want to come back to this album without even thinking about it. “Glad Tidings” is a vital, leaping promenade through the streets of the town; fast, clean rock and roll moves it along as striking horns guide the song, until they cue the chorus into an explosion of real joy: “Yeah, we’ll send you glad tidings/From New York/Do Do Do Doot Do Do/ Open up your eyes that you may see/ Do Do Do Doot Do Do/Ask you not to read between the lines/Hoping that you come right in on time.”
Moondance is an album of musical invention and lyrical confidence; the strong moods of “Into the Mystic” and the fine, epic brilliance of “Caravan” will carry it past many good records we’ll forget in the next few years. Van Morrison plays on.