Amongst the major musical titans emerging during the second half of the 20th century, the Belfast-born Irish soul troubadour Van Morrison is perhaps the most underappreciated — a figure every bit the equal of Dylan, Young, and Cohen in terms of achievement and influence — but somehow one also subtly marginalized in the annals of music history.
No one argues (or no one that we know of) that Van The Man isn’t great. But despite or because of the extent of his domineering genius, he has remained a conspicuously remote rock star, with a well-earned reputation as one of the truly difficult and diffident figures in popular music. Tales of his crankiness are legendary, and include hectoring inattentive audiences, abusing fellow musicians both on and off stage, and generally creating the impression that other human beings are not his preferred life form.
It is a personal reputation that cuts against the stunningly ingratiating nature of Van’s greatest music, a beguiling mélange of the romantic, naturalistic, spiritual and sexual, worshipping equally at the altar of Jackie Wilson and John Donne. Perhaps the only artist of our time capable of mirroring this inextricable conflation of body and soul would be his unexpected doppelgänger, Prince. Morrison’s music knits together diverse histories and seems to exist outside of time and place. Possessing an extraordinary musical aptitude with countless instruments, as well as an equally expert facility for writing and performing in the folk, jazz, blues, and soul idioms, Van transcends formalism and makes his influences new again. It does not hurt that as a vocalist he is virtually peerless, on a plane with John Lennon, Billie Holiday, and Sam Cooke.
Much like another hard-boiled romantic genius, Alex Chilton, Morrison first came to prominence as a preternaturally gifted teenager fronting the gritty soul act Them. By 1967, at the age of 22, he had already composed the standards “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” which remain two of his best-known songs. But the idiosyncratic and complicated Morrison was always a one-man gang at heart, and the inevitable launch of his solo career would bring to bear the intensely sad, sublime and inventive chamber pop of Astral Weeks, an instantly legendary album whose luminous power has only increased with age.
Even within the context of the deliriously madcap, anything-goes mentality that had taken over the music industry by 1968, Astral Weeks was an insane idea: a largely improvised 47-minute jazz-folk song-cycle that wed a passionate spirituality to tales of Belfast’s most pronounced outcasts: junkies, transvestites, and disenfranchised souls of every variety. In its way, Astral Weeks was every bit as subversive and daring as the Velvet Underground’s thematically similar White Light/White Heat, released the same year. In some ways it was more so. While the Velvets swathed their tales of deviance and deprivation inside apocalyptic walls of feedback and dissonance, Van went the other way, with gentle, slow building beauty eerily offsetting the desperation of the album’s inhabitants.
Astral Weeks was an inarguably masterful record, but its baroque, drawn-out tales held little in the way of commercial promise. As if to compensate, Van followed it up with Moondance, an album full of brief, catchy, and often spectacular songs, including two unimpeachable classics: the rough and ready “Caravan” and the borderline transcendent slow burn “Into The Mystic.” The album was justifiably a million-seller, and from that point forward Van remained a bona fide commercial proposition as well as an artistic one, turning out classic singles like ticker tape throughout the early ’70s: “Domino,” “Wild Nights,” “Jackie Wilson Says (I’m In Heaven),” and others. While this represented the period of his most overt mainstream acceptance, Morrison was continually pushing the envelope. Three-minute marvels stood toe to toe with phenomenal existential meditations, such as the spectacular, harrowing ten-minute wonder “Almost Independence Day,” from 1972’s brilliant St. Dominic’s Preview.
Eventually, Van’s more meditative, experimental side became dominant again, resulting in both his best ever work and his most disappointing commercial results. 1974’s Veedon Fleece was a return to the geographic and emotional terrain of Astral Weeks, a Gaelic preoccupied masterclass packed with more melancholy, longing and despair than a mass audience was prepared to embrace. Its commercial failure would send a demoralized Morrison into a multi-year hiatus from releasing music. It is perhaps his greatest ever work.
The Van who resurfaced from self-imposed exile emerged unchastened by his mainstream failures and eager to push the envelope further still. The series of frequently ingenious records he made starting in the late ’70s and onto the early ’90s both benefited from his profound grounding in R&B and soul and freed him from them at the same time. His experimentations with synths and atmospherics were every bit the equal of the groundbreaking work being done by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. His preoccupations became steadily more spiritual in nature, although the bile of his industry-related frustrations never abated. It all came together on the stunning 1986 release No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, an astoundingly underappreciated album that Okkervil River’s Will Sheff writes about with great insight here.
Typical of Van, that gorgeous and wistfully autumnal album commences with a memorably dyspeptic complaint: “Copycats stole my words/ Copycats stole my songs/ Copycats stole my melodies…” It’s a funny sentiment, but it’s not wrong. The litany of timeless artists who have borrowed liberally from the musical vocabulary Morrison created is enormous. It is fair to assert that the careers of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello to Dan Bejar would look immensely different without the presence of Van The Man’s influence. It is nearly assured that none of them would disagree, but the fact of it remains wildly underreported.
Later period Morrison has a tendency to run to the more readily agreeable, from the gratifying romp through American country that was 2006’s Pay The Devil (an album of mostly covers, not included in this count down) to the jazz enchantments of 2012’s Born To Sing. It is a blessing and a curse for this visionary artist that the aspects that make his music so routinely palatable also tend to disguise the hidden genius embedded in his carefully crafted work. The lower part of our countdown is populated by many of his most recent records, but that may well be the consequence of our not having the context to achieve the full understanding of his ambitions. We also elected not to include a handful of his great collaborations and some of his live records, though all are worth checking out. It would come as no surprise if we were to revise our opinion in ten years’ time, and recognize that Van was simply ahead of us. He nearly always is.