Van Morrison Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.