Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Van Morrison album by album

A work in progress....Update links to Spotify. Put in scores. Etc.  March 2019





Van Morrison is one of my favourite artists - I consider him to be one of the great musical artists of the 20th century, and his album Astral Weeks to be one the greatest examples of human achievement. I have seen him live three times. None of the concerts were entirely successful - though seeing him do Astral Weeks at The Albert Hall was something special.

I worked on the Wikipedia article, and took it to Good Article status, but another editor keeps wanting to clean it up and remove mentions of his famous stubborn, idiosyncratic attitude. This is a shame as that's an essential part of him, and knowledge of that gives insight into his music. Astral Weeks would never have appeared if he hadn't been so curmudgeonly. Anyway, so be it. I change it back every now and again, and after some time has passed it gets removed again. Life is too short. Here's my version:

Van Morrison (Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE,[1] born 31 August 1945 in BelfastNorthern Ireland) is a critically acclaimed singer and songwriter with a reputation for being at once stubborn,[2][3] idiosyncratic,[4] and sublime.[5] His live performances at their best are seen as transcendental and inspired;[6][7] while some of his recordings, such as the studio albums Astral Weeks and Moondance, and the live album It's Too Late to Stop Now, are acclaimed as among the greatest recorded. In 2016 he was knighted for his musical achievements and his services to tourism and charitable causes in Northern Ireland.
Known as "Van the Man", Morrison started his professional career when, as a teenager in the late 1950s, he played a variety of instruments including guitar, harmonica, keyboards and saxophone for various Irish showbands covering the popular hits of the day. He rose to prominence in the mid-1960s as the lead singer of the Northern Irish R&B band Them, with whom he recorded the garage band classic "Gloria". His solo career began under the pop-hit oriented guidance of Bert Berns with the release of the hit single "Brown Eyed Girl" in 1967. After Berns' death, Warner Bros. Records bought out his contract and allowed him three sessions to record Astral Weeks (1968).[8] Even though this album would gradually garner high praise, it was initially a poor seller; Moondance (1970), however, established Morrison as a major artist,[9] and he built on his reputation throughout the 1970s with a series of acclaimed albums and live performances. Morrison continues to record and tour, producing albums and live performances that sell well and are generally warmly received, sometimes collaborating with other artists, such as Georgie Fame and the Chieftains. In 2008 he performed Astral Weeks live for the first time since 1968.
Much of Morrison's music is structured around the conventions of soul music and R&B, such as the popular singles "Brown Eyed Girl", "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)", "Domino" and "Wild Night". An equal part of his catalogue consists of lengthy, loosely connected, spiritually-inspired musical journeys that show the influence of Celtic tradition, jazz and stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as the album Astral Weeks and lesser-known ones such as Veedon Fleece and Common One.[10][11] The two strains together are sometimes referred to as "Celtic soul".[12] He has received six Grammy Awards, the 1994 Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Anyway, I think it's time I went through his albums chronologically.....

Them

The Angry Young Them (1965)
Them was Morrison's band before he embarked on his solo career., and this is their debut album. It's a raw RnB album and is a mix of covers, and songs by Morrison; it contains "Gloria" and "Mystic Eyes", which indicate his special song-writing talent to accompany that extraordinary voice, and four other Morrison compositions. Also in 1965 the single "Here Comes The Night", written by Bert Berns, the band's producer and later Morrison's record label boss, was released and became a hit. The song didn't appear on the UK album, but was included on the American release.

His voice is young here, though already soulful and attractive. The musical structures are pleasant, but fairly simple RnB, with little of the depth and range that he would later employ. Morrison would occasionally return to this sound much later in his career. As an album of Sixties British RnB it is attractive enough, and quite useful as an indicator of what was happening in general at the time. "Gloria" is, of course, the stand-out track - a sweaty song of adolescent sexual desire which has become a garage classic, much covered, most notably by The Doors and Patti Smith.

Some other albums by British RnB artists released around the same time: The Rolling Stones No 2;  Begin Here (The Zombies);  Animal Tracks (The Animals);  Kinda Kinks (The Kinks); The Pretty Things; Their First LP (The Spencer Davis Group);  For Your Love (The Yardbirds); The Magnificent Moodies (The Moody Blues); and The Hollies.

Conclusion: It's a decent enough album, and worth hearing as Morrison's debut, but it is not essential.
Score: 5

Them Again (1966)
Some of the tracks here are pastoral, pointing ahead to Astral Weeks, otherwise this is a fairly weak album.

Solo

The Authorized Bang Collection (2017)
All the tracks Morrison recorded for Bang, including the contract fulfilling "nonsense songs about ringworms" that he gave to Bang's widow to get out of the unfair contract. I love it.



Blowin' Your Mind (1967)

Morrison hates this album as it was made without his knowledge, and due to the contract he signed with Bert Berns he claims he hasn't made any money from it. The single Brown Eyed Girl is one of the most played songs on the radio, and for most people is what Morrison is famous for. When I saw him in Rochester Castle Gardens, the audience mostly chatted and drank during the concert until he finished with this song, when everyone got up and sang and danced.



Astral Weeks (1968)
One of the greatest albums ever made. A sublime moment of human creativity and achievement. This is Morrison's first proper solo album, as Blowin' Your Mind was an unofficial release of songs not intended to be released as an album.



Moondance (Jan 1970)
Beautiful



His Band and the Street Choir  (Nov 1970)
I've yet to fully get to grips with this.



Tupelo Honey (1971)

This is "my" Van Morrison album - the first album of Morrison's that I bought, and which I totally fell in love with. Friends to whom I was enthusing then suggested I try Moondance and Astral Weeks, which I did, and I think these three albums form a highly musical and emotional tio of sublime achievement. There are songs on this album that I find intensely beautiful.

All of Morrison's albums have been re-released on CD, apart from this one. Apparently he has claimed that it was originally released without his permission, and that the songs were from different periods. This doesn't really stand up, as we have the recording session information, and the songs all have a similar and related theme regarding his contentment with his then partner. It may be that he is embarrassed that it is such a deeply personal and intimate album of love for someone other than his current partner.....

A number of modern biographers and critics have been looking at this album and reappraising it downwards. Typical of that is Erik Hage who feels that the directness, emotional honesty, and sublime feeling of "You're My Woman" is "some of his worse poetry" and that he can do such tender naked honest emotion "in his sleep" (I think he's confusing the real thing here with with casual performances on later albums) and that it doesn't compare to "Brand New Day" (an obvious Sam Cooke rip-off, performed with professional coldness) or  "I Ever Needed Someone" (an unimaginative and casual gospel piece). For a critic to confuse a rare and unique direct song of intimate love to a partner, with a run of the mill gospel song full of trite clichés or to a Sam Cooke rip-off is rather shoddy.



Saint Dominic's Preview (1972)
I don't think I've heard this one before. Some of the tracks, yes, but not the complete album. I think this may take me some time to get into.



Hard Nose the Highway (1973)
A fairly ambitious album musically, this was taken seriously on release, but critics have been less kind over the years.  This seems to be carrying on the musical expansion shown on Saint Dominic's. It is interesting, though perhaps less emotionally successful than previous albums, as though Morrison is concentrating on the music rather than what he wants to express as he did with his first solo albums.




It's Too Late To Stop Now (Feb 1974)
Live album from Morrison's peak creative period. Totally awesome.



Veedon Fleece (Oct 1974)
This has been compared to Astral Weeks, though it consists partly of left-over songs from Hard Nose, and doesn't even come close to what was achieved on Astral. I suspect folks making the comparison have not really experienced Astral Weeks.


Break

Van Morrison is an awkward and troubled person. Painfully shy, he often found it hard to perform live (and sometimes even to perform in the studio with sessions musicians he didn't know, as is the case with Astral Weeks). By the mid Seventies his emotional vulnerability overcame him, and after Veedon Fleece in 1974 he stopped recording and performing. He couldn't write or perform, and after struggling with it for nearly three years he was about to give music up completely, when he was  asked to take part in The Band's farewell concert in November 1976, which became known as The Last Waltz.

He knew the members of The Band. They were friends and neighbours, so he agreed. But when it came time for him to go out on stage nerves got the better of him, and he refused. His manager, the beefy Harvey Goldsmith, physically forced him onto the stage, where he performed this miraculous and joyful version of Caravan.



Gaining confidence from that he performance he comes back in 1977. Though, while his music and voice is still good, he'll never again match the transcendental quality of the material he made up to 1974.

A Period of Transition (1977) 

Some of these songs sound as throwaway as the ones done on the Bang recordings.


Wavelength (1978)
This is a modest album, but as its quite poppy it sold well.



Into The Music (1979)
While this is not exactly a return to Morrison's creative peak, the songs here are among the best and most approachable he's done since 1972 - they are honest, emotional, poppy, and melodic. There was some enthusiasm among critics for the album which seems a little misplaced, but understandable. This is not one of Morrison's great albums, but it's better than most.



Common One (1980)
Jazz. Not really my thing. It's a proper album from a proper serious musician and needs to be treated with respect, but it's too solemn for me. Though I can see places where it might be transcendent, and parts reminiscent of earlier work, it does largely miss the mark for me.



Beautiful Vision (1982)

Morrison has such a great voice, and a real way of singing with swing and style, that he could sing a McDonald's menu and make it transcendent , but this is fairly dull and plodding, like he's just going through the motions. This is music a considerable distance from his creative peak. As it's Morrison it's listenable, but it never soars, and it never takes me away.



Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983)

Some throwaway songs and instrumentals.



Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)

OK. Some good moments, but not an essential album. The proper live album is Too Late To Stop Now


A Sense of Wonder (1984)
Odd album. Sounds like Morrison, and there are moments which are quite intriguing, indicating that the man still has a strong creative awareness and drive, but there's that typical Eighties production, drums forward, smooth production values taking the edge off everything, and a general lack of passion and involvement which makes the core Morrison albums so transcendental. Let The Slave is curious, but there's a lot of poor songs, making the whole fairly tedious.



No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Critics felt this was a return to form, and his best album of the Eighties..... I'm thinking that it may be a while before I hear another decent Morrison album.




Poetic Champions Compose (1987)

Poor stuff. I like the do wops at the end of Queen Of The Slipstream; Alan Watts Blues is a decent piece both lyrically and musically, but most of this album is very weak, Give Me My Rapture sounds like a track  from some budget Christian album - unbelievable that it could be by the same guy who made Astral Weeks, Moondance, and Tupelo Honey.



Irish Heartbeat (1988)
Morrison and The Chieftains singing traditional Irish folk songs. It sounds like The Chieftains with a bit of Morrison's beautiful voice. This is not a Morrison album.



Avalon Sunset (1989)
Each to their own, but it seems such a waste of Morrison's creative talent and beautiful voice to waste it on trivial Christian songs like this. This is a throwaway album, the lyrics are embarrassing, and the music is the crudest and most trivial I've yet heard from Morrison. But, given Morrison's talent, this album is still better than most. Morrison's worse album is better than many folk's best.


Enlightenment (1990)
Listenable, but not much going on here.


Hymns to the Silence (1991)
More of the same.


Too Long In Exile (1993)

Something of a hodge-podge. Some listenable material, some mildly interesting. Morrison definitely has a talent, but this is just too casual and directionless to be considered a serious album.


A Night in San Franciso (1994)

Live album. I didn't have much patience with this. Mostly messy, totally unengaged, There are special guests, which means even more loss of focus. This is more about the spectacle of Van Morrison than the art and craft of Van Morrison. It sucks. This is probably about as far as you can get from the commitment and artistic passion of Astral Weeks as it is possible.


Days Like This (1995)

Another album that critics hailed as "a return to form", which I now understand means "this sounds a bit like what Morrison sounded like when he was actually good".  This is not a return to form. It's Morrison lazily going though the motions with songs that lack commitment, but sound pleasantly poppy and familiar.


How Long Has This Been Going On (1995)

Morrison has flirted with jazz throughout his career. His two main music sources have been RnB and jazz, and he has combined those with elements of folk, pop, and soul (which has been termed "Celtic soul") to great effect. Now and again he has isolated out the jazz, and it has been fairly ordinary. I can understand that is he has an interest in a form of music that he would like to explore it more fully nopw and again, but when he does he goes so far away from what makes him special that the result is very pedestrian. This is a collaboration with Georgie Fame. It's not a Morrison album, and should not be listed in his oevre, even as a failure, because there is nothing recognisably Morrison about this. Think late 50s early 60s pop-bop, and that's what you get. It's dribbble.


Tell Me Something:
The Songs of Mose Allison
(1996)
While Morrison has a beautiful voice, it can be wasted at times. Here he attempts to cover jazz compositions by Mose Allison, assisted by the limited talents of his favourite jazz collaborator Georgie Fame, and the mess stinks to high heaven.



The Healing Game (1997)
A little tougher, grittier and more rounded than previous Morrison material. Seems he is maturing into old age nicely, same as a number of other older artists have done. It's still a fairly modest album compared to his early Seventies output, but this is perhaps his first album since those days that you can at least take seriously as a genuine creative work rather than just another annual album release.


.
The Philosopher's Stone (1998)
A gathering together of unreleased tracks from Morrison's career, a la Dylan's Bootleg Series. This is, as such, strictly for the fans. There's a mix of good stuff, OK stuff, and not so good stuff. It's not an essential album, just a curiosity. The tracks would be better off being put as bonus tracks on the appropriate albums.


Back On Top (1999)
Another annual release.  Pleasant moments, but nothing essential - the best track, Leaves Falling Down, is like a Van Morrison by numbers - you can hear it's a Morrison track, but its smulchy rather than profound, and just marks the contrast between his creative period in the early Seventies, and pretty much everything he has done since he returned from the three year break.



The Skiffle Sessions
Live in Belfast 1998 (2000)

Nah!


You Win Again (2000)

Nah again!


Down The Road (2002)
This album at least sounds like Morrison, unlike the previous two, but is more of the usual, otherwise.


What's Wrong with This Picture? (2003)

Old fashioned jazzy blues. Mostly superficial stuff. Likeable, but this could be anyone - though Fame is a good song, and is more recognisably Morrison.


Magic Time (2005)
While Morrison hasn't really been truly transcendental since the early Seventies, he's rarely made a bad album. He has such a beautiful voice, and a great feel for the music, that even albums I moan about are above average output. This is a good example of Morrison putting out what is essentially a run of the mill album for him, but is quite attractive and listenable.


Pay The Devil (2006)

Country & Western covers.


Keep It Simple (2008)

A modest album.


Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009)
I saw the Albert Hall version, as with this concert, there were moments when Morrison really cooked, but what these concerts kinda proved is that the original album was a perfect moment in time. It wasn't just the songs, nor even the performers. It was them plus something intangible that folks have tried to analyse and pin down over the years, but always sort of slips away. It was late in the evening. Morrison didn't explain what he wanted. Morrison was nervous. There was an emotional and creative atmosphere in the studio that came out of the unique circumstances. Pure magic was recorded. Something rare and special. This album is rather some way from that magic. Yes, it's listenable, because the songs and the performers are good. But what made Astral Weeks one of the best albums ever made, and a pinnacle in human artistic achievement, is not present here.


Born to Sing: No Plan B (2012)


More pleasant stuff.


Duets: Re-working the Catalogue (2015)

A range of duets covering songs from different stages in Morrison's career. Pleasant nonsense. Totally non-essential.


Keep Me Singing (2016)
The voice is going.....


Roll With The Punches (2017)
Mostly covers.


Discography



Links


* Wilson & Alroy
sfloman
* Adrian
* Hoffman Forum: "Did Morrison Ever make a bad Album?"
* Uncut Top Ten
* Ranker
* Vinyl Top Ten
* BestEverAlbums
* Nerve
* Stereogum



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