Van Morrison Essay - Critical Essays

Morrison, Van


Van Morrison 1945–

Irish songwriter, singer, and musician.

Morrison's best lyrics take emotion as their subject. His most compelling visions are mystical and unusually poetic. There is an authenticity to Morrison's images and projections that can only be attributed to his having deeply experienced the emotions they describe. Although many critics have found his lyrics at times strained and ambiguous, most believe that they convey true feeling. Morrison's statement, "you don't create, you go into," is the basis for his songwriting, and this ability accounts for Morrison's acclaim.

Morrison began singing when he was twelve and by the age of thirteen was learning to play guitar, saxophone, and harmonica. At sixteen he dropped out of high school to tour Europe with a rock group called the Monarchs. At nineteen he returned to his native Belfast and formed the band Them. With Morrison as lead singer, the group developed a strong following. Them had several hit singles in England, and Morrison's own "Gloria" was a commercial success in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Although Them disbanded in 1967, Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" was successfully introduced in the same year. In 1968 Morrision signed a contract with Warner Brothers and moved to the United States.

His first album for that company, Astral Weeks, was a radical departure lyrically and stylistically from the work Morrison had done with Them. A moving document of one man's spiritual anguish, Astral Weeks introduced the kind of "mystic visions" Morrison has pursued on many of his subsequent albums. Astral Weeks was a tremendous critical success and resulted in a cult following for Morrison. His next album, the lyrical and intense Moondance, was successful commercially and critically, as was the later His Band and Street Choir. Tupelo Honey outsold all previous albums and seemed to climax favorable critical opinion of Morrison's work. This album presents a note of optimism and hopefulness sometimes evident but never dominant in his earlier work. It also reveals an emotionally confident Morrison, a man who has recognized redeeming graces in his love for a woman and in human relationships generally. Following the release of Hard Nose the Highway, It's Too Late to Stop Now, and the controversial Veedon Fleece in 1974, Morrison disappeared from public view until the release of A Period of Transition in 1977. Although many critics loyal to Morrison felt that the album was significant in its indications of things to come, others dismissed it as a groping after the lost beauty of Astral Weeks and the earlier albums. The albums that followed, Wavelength, Into the Music, and Common One, were generally well received, although few critics seemed to feel that Morrison was writing with the grace and power he had once exhibited.

It is often acknowledged that Morrison's best work strips down and examines the most painful human emotions. Thus the serenity of his later work is felt to have somewhat diluted the impact of his lyrics. Morrison remains, however, an acclaimed and respected artist for the introspective nature of his lyrics and his independence from popular trends.

Happy Traum

Van Morrison is one of the most important singer song-writers working today. His songs and vocal style are intense, dramatic, and written with rare depth and perception. [Astral Weeks] could never be classified as "easy listening." In fact, to get into it takes much more hard work than most records, but it will be well worth the effort. The songs are long and introspective, and it takes time to sort the words out from his thick Belfast accent—but when you do you will hear stunningly poetic lines and songs about things people don't usually write about. His voice, intense and emotion-charged, is powerful and chilling—as in "Madame George," the story of an aging "queen," playing dominoes in drag, running from the cops, the "one and only Madame George."… Van Morrison is original, unusual and an important voice—listen to him.

Happy Traum, "Record Reviews: 'Astral Weeks'," in Sing Out! (© 1970 Sing Out! Magazine, Inc.; 505-8th Ave., NY, NY 10018; excerpted with permission), Vol. 19, No. 5. March-April, 1970, p. 46.

Jon Landau

Van Morrison's road has been rocky, and it has not left him unscarred, but it is now obvious that he has not only made it through his personal bad times, but that he has come upon a period of great personal creativity. Beginning with Astral Weeks, he has released three albums of extraordinary quality in the last two years.

Moondance is, in my mind, one of the great albums of 1970. In it Van presented his fully developed musical style…. The lyrics were simple, personal and intense….

If Moondance had a flaw it was in its perfection. Sometimes things fell into place so perfectly I wished there was more room to breathe. Every song was a polished gem, and yet too much brilliance at the same time and in the same place can be blinding. The album would have benefitted by some changes in mood and pace along the way. One or two light and playful cuts would have done the job.

On His Band and the Street Choir he seems to have realized that and has tried for a freer, more relaxed sound. Knowing he could not come up with another ten songs as perfectly honed as those on Moondance, he has chosen to show another side of what goes on around his house.

"Give Me A Kiss," "Blue Money," "Sweet Jannie," and "Call Me Up In Dreamland" are all examples of Van's new rollicking, good-timey style….

As "Domino" opens the album with a show of strength,...

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Richard Williams

Thank heavens. I was beginning to wonder after "His Band And The Street Choir," whether perhaps Van's mercurial talent was on the wane.

Although that album improved a lot with repeated playings, it still sounds perhaps a little too comfortable, with more inconsequential throw-aways than any other Morrison album.

"Tupelo Honey" sweeps away all fears because, although it doesn't represent a return to the anguish of "Astral Weeks" or the sensual tautness of "Moondance," it consolidates "Street Choir's" sense of happiness, and makes something worth while of it. Whereas with "Street Choir" he was simply saying, "I'm here, and I'm happy," now he's telling us why he's at peace, and what makes him feel good….

"Old, Old Woodstock," for instance, is a masterful song of rest and tranquility, on the same theme as [Bob] Dylan's "Time Passes Slowly," and its air of total self-conscious contentment aptly characterizes a very powerful album. Van Morrison can rock a bit, you know.

Richard Williams, "Follow the Van," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), November 20, 1971, p. 10.

Jon Landau

[Tupelo Honey], 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 recording he has done so far….

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…. 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."…

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."…

"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….

"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...

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Deborah Landau

Finally we have Van Morrison's long-awaited LP [Tupelo Honey]. Weeks before the album was available, the two singles, Tupelo Honey and Wild Night, were already smash hits, and with good reason. The title song is one of the most joyous love melodies to have come around in a long time…. With that kind of preview, it was surely an album to look forward to. But now that it's here, it seems anticipation outstripped fulfillment.

This album, like Morrison himself, should appeal mostly to very young listeners. Not that his work is immature—there is no denying Morrison is a strong singer with a well-developed style—but it's rather his orientation. He's playing it safe, not taking...

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Dave Marsh

After Tupelo Honey Van Morrison must have been faced with a choice. He could continue with his domestic tranquility myth, which was as artistically false as it might have been literally true, or he could head for new turf. He has chosen the latter course (wisely I think). If the result is more curious than classic, perhaps that is the price of adventure.

There are strands of nearly every kind of music Van Morrison has ever made in [St. Dominic's Preview]. It is short on the darkness and fire of Them, but the lilting r'n'b of "Domino" and "Blue Money," the exotic improvisation and searching of Astral Weeks and the mystic yearnings of Moondance are finally full-fledged. For...

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Stephen Holden

Hard Nose the Highway is psychologically complex, musically somewhat uneven and lyrically excellent. Its surface pleasures are a little less than those of St. Dominic's Preview and a great deal less than those of Tupelo Honey, while its lyric depths are richer and more accessible than those of either predecessor. The major theme of Hard Nose is nostalgia, briefly but firmly counter-pointed by disillusion. The latter sentiment Van spews out in the album's one ugly, self-indulgent song, "The Great Deception," a vicious indictment of hip urban culture and rock affluence….

The cut-by-cut schematization of Hard Nose is fairly loose. Side one comprises five songs,...

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Lester Bangs

[Hard Nose the Highway] is an object lesson in Giving the People What They Deserve any way you look at it. If you think they deserve a ration of anguish to keep their molars bright, you can find it here if you read between the ferns. If you dream at night of infinite Gitcheegumee lapping panaceas to salve us all through the Seventies, Hard Nose will soft-on in seconds flat. If, even, you kinda feel that this prevalent public (and critical, yup yup) attitude of blanket acquiescence for the existential excreta of all these droll mulling popeye geniuses deserves finally to be rubbed in the used Kleenex of its own passivity by the overbearingly downy stroke of just one gross and sustained insult to...

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Melody Maker

[In compiling "Them, Featuring Van Morrison Lead Singer", Nick] Tauber has had a relatively easy task in selecting essentially from the two albums that Van made with Them—he's got all the accepted classics like "Gloria," "Here Comes The Night" and "Mystic Eyes"—but he's also come up with a number called "Hey Girl," totally new to me, whose pastoral lyricism is quite unlike the rawness of the rest of the material and seems to presage "Astral Weeks" in its introspection. Generally, though, what's fascinating about this early stuff is how favourably it compares to what Morrison has since done on his own…. But Morrison's own potential is so obvious—and not just vocally—that it's difficult to see why interest...

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Bob Sarlin

[TB Sheets] is, substantially, a rerelease of Morrison's 1967 solo album …, Blowin' Your Mind, the album that produced "Brown Eyed Girl."…

For Morrison fans this album is a necessary addition to the collection. For those who've never heard the [earlier] releases except for the ubiquitous "Brown Eyed Girl," it should be an exciting listening experience, defining some of the unfilled corners of this man's development as an artist. (p. 69)

The title tune, "T. B. Sheets" is a nightmare set to music. The liner notes explain that Van broke down in tears after recording this memory of life with a girl dying of tuberculosis. Whether or not this girl lived in Van's flat or...

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Ken Emerson

Like the white middle class it entertains, rock music exhibits a certain rootlessness, a lack of a living history. This is rock's greatest asset—it is spontaneous and free, contemporary and temporary—but it can also be a liability. The ever-recurrent rock revivals and our fondness for golden oldies express the absence of a past, the very word "revival" indicating that the past is dead. Many artists are exploring that past, but the then and the now are so disjunct that more often than not such efforts are camp, lifeless, effete and irrelevant, or crudely exploitative.

Van Morrison, one of the few … for whom the American musical tradition is passionate and alive, loves this tradition with the...

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Jim Miller

Van Morrison is an enigmatic figure. Although he practices the art of a flamboyant soul trouper, he maintains an oddly detached, awkward stage presence. His vision is hermetic, his energy implosive; yet his vocation is public.

These are curious contradictions for a performer to sustain, but they help lend Morrison's art its resonance. His distinction lies in his fusion of a visceral intensity with an introspective lyric style—a potentially powerful amalgam owing as much to Bobby Bland as Bob Dylan. Although his lyrics have often been ludicrous, and his bands merely competent, Morrison's singing animates his material….

[His] lyrics, at best carrying the conviction of spontaneous...

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Charles Nicholaus

Van Morrison, I've been thinking lately, is the intellectual's Grateful Dead. They offer an amplified nirvana, fueled by chemicals; he offers the dark night, fueled by despair, self-pity, ennui. In either case it is easy to listen, but I'm beginning to wonder why anyone should want to.

I would like to find something nice to say about Hard Nose the Highway,… but that would be silly. It was a bad record. [Veedon Fleece] is not. It is a boring one, and in a way, I think bad records are preferable. They at least require outrageous response. With records like this, one must be careful. A little too much, on one side or the other, and the album begins to sound interesting. That would be...

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Jonathan Cott

Sometimes, in moments of bewilderment or happiness, you may catch yourself singing or whistling a song whose words, on reflection, explain how things really are with you—"Good Day Sunshine" when it's raining, "Rain" when it's sunny, "Hello Goodbye" when you don't know whether to stay or go. In all kinds of weather and situations, the song interprets you….

To the sound of the slow-motion footfall of acoustic guitar and bass, Van Morrison's radiant and archetypal vision of a woman on her horse of snow has recently brought back to me perhaps the most extraordinary of these mysterious songs, "Slim Slow Slider," the three-minute blues reverie that concludes the time-less Astral Weeks album...

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Michael Watts

It's paradoxical that "Astral Weeks", Van Morrison's best and most enduring album, should be unrepresentative of his general body of music; as is in fact that his reputation was not truly established until his second album for Warner Brothers, "Moondance", which set the course for a succession of records, generally excellent and sometimes more, in an R&B-cum-jazz mode that was markedly different from "Astral Weeks".

Of all subsequent albums, only his last, the almost forgotten but immensely underrated "Veedon Fleece" comes close to capturing the quietly obsessive quality of the first, its songs each like tender, curling snapshots….

Both ["Astral Weeks" and "Moondance"] were...

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Peter Knobler

People had started talking about Van Morrison in the past tense. In the three years since his last album release [Veedon Fleece] his presence had grown to become some vaguely attainable level of excellence it seemed no one, not even Morrison himself, could ever truly achieve, or had ever truly achieved. Bruce Springsteen acknowledged him and Graham Parker took his rough edges as a persona. His albums, grown familiar after so many years of constant play, were beginning to be referred to as classics and, as happens with the greats of the ages, were more discussed for impact than actually listened to for pleasure. Van the Man became an Influence—like Beethoven, Chuck Berry or Lenny Bruce—not on the...

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Lester Bangs

Who has not been waiting for the next great Van Morrison LP? Whether you thought his last masterpiece was Veedon Fleece or Tupelo Honey or even (what I think) Moondance, you certainly were never prepared to write him off. Nobody's going to write him off because of Wavelength either, but it's obviously not the album he is still destined to make.

Something comes clear here. Ever since Moondance, Van Morrison has staked his claim to the rare title "poet," mostly on the basis of what amounts to a bunch of autumn leaves. Look at those records lying there—Tupelo Honey, Hard Nose the Highway—the best as good as the worst, and all of 'em slowly turning brown. You...

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Dave Schulps

Roy Wood and Van Morrison can be called two of rock's true eccentric geniuses, the success of whose careers have never quite matched the brilliance they displayed when properly motivated….

The titles of their respective new albums, however, suggest a renewed enthusiasm on the part of both Wood and Morrison, who have both experienced qualitative, if not quantitative, flops during the past few years…. In both cases, there are flashes of greatness exhibited, but neither of these albums sustains them long enough to qualify as an all-around success.

Of the two, Morrison's [Into the Music], surprisingly, is the stronger, probably his best studio LP of the last five years in...

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Tom Carson

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...

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Barry Alfonso

"Rock poet" has become almost a dirty word in critical parlance, invoking Moody Blues florid gush or worse. Matching verse to music is still a valid activity, however, provided the words aren't intended primarily for the printed page and the resulting song is strong on record.

At his best, Van Morrison achieves this synthesis. Though barely coherent on paper, his lyrics take on a brooding power when sung, seeming like great wisdom even if they border on nonsense. On Astral Weeks, Morrison set gloriously elusive images to a baroque jazz blend, proving himself a true rock poet—a versifier who was also a skilled musician.

Common One, to be up-front, isn't Astral...

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