Tupelo Honey (Warner Bros. 1950), like all of Van Morrison’s albums, is both a synthesis of what has preceded it and a statement of something new. It has the musical compactness of Moondance and some of the spirited looseness of Van Morrison His Band and The Street Choir. It is also the best sounding record he has done so far, thus making up for one of the main flaws on the last album: the inferior mix.
Thematically, Van’s songs of dedication and devotion to women are elevated and transformed into an opus. Tupelo Honey is Morrison’s “domestic” album and as surely as his earlier work often expressed frustration and despair over his mistreatment by others, Tupelo Honey revels in the happiness and appreciation he feels towards those people who now give him love and strength. It differs from other thematically related albums in its absence of any sense of complacency, smugness, or condescension to those who do not feel the same way. And, conversely, it is dominated by an air of intensity that tells us Van feels his current needs with no less passion than he felt past ones, even as the texture of the album sometimes passes into a bubbly lightness, uniquely reflecting Van’s very personal sense of joy.
On the first few plays, Tupelo Honey might strike the casual listener as merely a superior collection of pop tunes but every repeated play reveals its deeper level of meaning. For nine songs Van consistently and consciously develops the theme of “starting a new life” through the growth of his own strength and confidence. At the same time he is consistently playing off his musical styles and influences against one another, especially his semi-country and folk styles against his R&B background. The cuts on the album are then arranged and structured like cuts in a movie: moods are built, lessened, and rebuilt until the album reaches an almost inexorable climax in “Moonshine Whiskey,” a cut especially noteworthy for its internal cutting between country and R&B modes.
Lyrically, Van is in a typically playful mood. After correlating the lighter moods of the album with the use of his country style and the more intense moods with an R&B style, he reverses the pattern in “Moonshine Whiskey,” as the frivolously beautiful vamp of the R&B breaks is contrasted with the heavier intent of the country breaks on the song. In addition, Van’s humor often takes a concrete form on this album as he makes two good natured references to Dylan’s New Morning during “Moonshine Whiskey.” The first is to “Time Passes Slowly” via the lines “What the fishes in the water/O-o-o-o- h-h-h-h bubbles/Watch the bubbles come out of the water….” The second is in Van’s line that “… she’s my Texas sweetheart straight from Arkansas,” a play on Dylan’s recently discovered love for geography.
Musically, the album functions at several different levels. Van turns in a truly virtuoso vocal performance and there are several moments on the record of obvious and planned vocal greatness that exist as nothing more or less than sheer musical beauty. The band plays with more individual inspiration than any of Van’s recorded groups so far, with particular honors going to pianist Mark Jordan and drummers Rick Schlosser and Connie Kay. Finally, there is the very intricate working out of the album’s musical content which serves not only as a continuous stylistic correlative to the lyrics but as a sort of overall embodiment of the album’s mood and final content.
“Wild, Wild Night,” is a statement of the past, a song done almost from memory, encompassing the style and form of some of Van’s earliest music. It is a remembrance of a different kind of need and the ultimate loneliness that always followed from it: “The wind catches your feet and sends you flying–crying …”
“Straight to Your Heart” transmutes the expression of generalized need for excitement and fulfillment on “Wild, Wild Night” into an expression of desire for a single person. By the time we get to “Woodstock” he is no longer flying down an endless street but being “blown by a cool night’s breeze” down a country road towards a home and a family waiting for him. Thus in the space of three songs, Van has moved from a statement of almost desperate isolation to one of need and acceptance of personal stability.
“Starting a New Life,” seen in this context, is both the simplest and lyrically the most significant cut on the album as Van spells out with perfect clarity the statement of Tupelo Honey: it expresses his need to take stock of himself, to see how far he has come, to record the support of those who have helped him get there, and together with them to “start a new life.” It is fitting that “You’re My Woman” is literally about starting a new life. The song is about woman giving birth to child. In it Van not only expresses his love for the woman but his happiness over his newly found place in the order of things. For the love expressed here is not in a single direction: “You are my sunshine/I am your guiding light.” Not only does he accept his own need for love but he accepts the need of others for his. Only when he is sure of the mutuality of the need, which is externalized through the birth of the child, can he say “that it’s really real.” Having said that, he can take the song home with the line “You’re my woman” and we can share it with him because only after hearing the whole body of the song do we know the full implications of the line. And the song ends once again with the affirmation that “it’s really, really real.”
“Tupelo Honey” is Van, now hitting his stride, certain, confident, and protective of his feelings. It is a song of pure devotion, a song of dedication, and through its incredible repetitions of the chorus, a song of rededication. “I Wanna Roo You” is a playful courting song, as old-fashioned in mood as it is lyrically. “Want You to Be Around” (“… to keep my both feet on the ground”) continues in the same vein with a pure good-timey song of mutual need and desire.
The album culminates in a song of celebration which is the reversal of “Wild, Wild Night.” For while the opening cut is a sort of last tribute to the life of the loner “looking for a love.” “Moonshine Whiskey” is a joyful statement about the existence and continuation of love and the stability it offers.
Thus the album’s themes revolve around Van’s conflicting statements of needs, resolved in the end only by the stability he has achieved through relationships and the strength it gives him to renew himself in every way. If the development of this vision is related to us in sequence, with the songs providing the lyrical jumps and changes in mood, the music paints a broader picture and ultimately provides us with the context. It never merely enhances the meaning, it always defines it.
The songs divide between those in which an intense R&B feel predominates and those on which either a folkish or country feeling asserts itself. The relaxed songs of courting are handled in terms of the latter, while songs of more explicit need are dealt with in the former. Just as “Starting a New Life,” “I Wanna Roo You,” and “When That Evening Sun Goes Down,” are lyrically related, they are stylistically interrelated. The varying use of steel guitar and country harmonica helps to flavor those tunes, as does the raucous jug band quality of the rhythm section on “Starting a New Life” and “When the Evening Sun Goes Down.” Here, and on several other cuts, Van’s own big beautiful acoustic Gibson is mixed high, in contrast to earlier albums. He plays an incessant churning style of rhythm that seems to drive and inspire everything and everyone else.
Musically, the mood and style turns itself around for “Wild Night,” “Like A Cannonball,” and “You’re My Woman,” on which the jazz and R&B feelings pour out of Van with a smoothness and naturalness that his inferiors dream about. “Wild, Wild Night” is Van’s conception of AM radio with everything whittled away to its basics. The arrangement follows a classic pattern and the vocal transfixes all elements of the record in a circle around the album’s only sun, Van himself.
“Like A Cannonball” is one of the album’s two songs done in three-quarter time, but where “I Wanna Roo You” is a folk song waltz, this one has a jazz feel. It is an especially noteworthy instance of Van’s use of accompanying voices. The woman singers who appear throughout the record achieve not only a feeling of perfect musical harmony but of spiritual harmony. Their spirit winds itself in and out of the album with almost pure grace and, at its best, a delicate elegance.
Musically, “You’re My Woman” is one of the genuine masterpieces of Van’s recording career. Van is generally at his best when he finds a consistently simple groove and then sways with it, moving deeper and deeper into an almost purely musical feeling with each additional repetition. It is amazing that on a cut six minutes and forty seconds long he holds our attention without ever giving up the microphone for the traditional solo.
Instrumentally, this cut contains every virtue of the album’s recording group. Mark Jordan’s piano sounds superb. The high-pitched horns soar out over the vocal just like you knew it should always be. And the rhythm section plays the song with a feeling to match Van’s.
“Old, Old Woodstock” falls somewhere between the more defined styles and moods of the album and contains one of its most restrained arrangements, until it finally reaches a full climax. It is on this cut and on “Tupelo Honey” that Van best displays his sense of dynamics. The latter song is one of such purity and inventiveness that it stands as a sort of landmark in the middle of the album. While most of the band plays moderately, or at least not overpoweringly, drummer Connie Kay drives Van upwards and downwards and back and forth with the record reaching one climax after another. The voice-drum interaction is a magnificent set piece, while the album’s motif of intensification through repetition is given an ultimate statement on this cut.
“Moonshine Whiskey” is the ultimate instance of intensification through repetition, but here Van alternates two ideas, one a country motif, the other R&B. In the dramatic finale of the piece, Van returns to the basic semi-country refrain but shapes it into a broader piece of music by the addition of incredibly right-sounding horns and the acceleration of the tempo–an age-old lounge bar band technique. It’s a fitting conclusion to an album that builds dichotomies only to resolve them both lyrically and musically in every instance.
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Tupelo Honey is in one sense but another example of the artist making increased use of the album as the unit of communication as opposed to merely the song or the cut. Everything on it is perfectly integrated. And yet, the only reason why everything on the whole works so well is because everything within it works so well. While the best cuts on the album, “Wild, Wild Night,” “Old, Old Woodstock,” “You’re My Woman,” “Tupelo’ Honey,” and “Moonshine Whiskey” are clearly a cut above the others in their conception, the performance and devotion to the craft are evident on every cut on the album. For Tupelo Honey is not only an album of beautiful themes, dazzling musical motifs, and exquisite performances. It is an album that was conceived and delivered by a very proud man. A man proud enough and happy enough “… to put on his hot pants and promenade down Funky Broadway until the cows come home …”
The next time he does I would be proud to be promenading right next to him.