Van Morrison Albums From Worst To Best
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.
Blowin' Your Mind! (1967)
Van's ostensible debut solo album (depending on interpretation), pressed out of obligation to Bang Records is a miscellany of his earliest writing as well as a couple of serviceable covers. While it might feel largely inessential owing to the artist's own consternation about the contractual nature of the release as well as the uncharacteristic cover art, it also happens to contain Van's most commercially popular song, "Brown Eyed Girl", which has found its way into constant rotation on classic rock radio as well as being a perennial favorite at most sorority formals and sweet sixteens. Love it or hate it (and it's pretty fair to assume Van hated it) Blowin' Your Mind! is a solid indication of a young songwriter capable of vaulting heights and the mark of the greatness that was right around the corner. Next up: Astral Weeks and a whole new ballgame.
A Sense Of Wonder (1985)
Keeping up with the tradition of releasing records that reference devotion and Van's favorite writers, A Sense Of Wonder follows suit with a shorthand for what Van the Man had figured out about himself and where he stands in the universe in the last decade. It's a fine record with the same warmth and luxuriousness of his previous efforts from the recent past, but it doesn't surprise or amaze in Van's accustomed ways. And that's really okay -- Van's most mediocre day at the office is still a good day for the rest of us.
Days Like This (1995)
Just as an exhausted Elvis Costello once wrote an album called Punch The Clock, perhaps no release in this artist's catalog sounds quite so much as an antiseptic enterprise in making a "Van Morrison record" than 1995's Days Like This. From the up-tempo opening track "This Could Be The Perfect Fit" to the admittedly lovely bayou jazz of "I'll Never Be Free", there is a sense of a great artist carefully marking the relevant boxes. Here we have Van as we might have to accept him for whatever future we enjoy together. If it is only the simple pleasures of "Days Like This", then that's a hell of a lot better then not having him at all.
Back On Top (1999)
In the bawdy tradition of bluesmen like Muddy Waters, and his 1977 "comeback" record Hard Again, this 1999 release is intended to reestablish Morrison's derelict credentials, and cut a swath through the soft rock label that he had assiduously affixed himself over the previous decade. And god damn if Van doesn't sound like a fully accomplished, first order letch on the gritty opening tussle "Goin' Down Geneva". It would have been fun if he could have stuck to his guns, but regrettably Morrison the maudlin balladeer soon asserts himself, and shortly a number of barely distinguishable mid-tempo numbers arrive to throw cold water on the party. Late gems like "Precious Time" and the gorgeous "Golden Autumn Day" help salvage the proceedings, but Back On Top feels mostly like a bacchanal missed and an opportunity lost.
A Period Of Transition (1977)
Van's first exertion following a frustrated three-year hiatus after the failure of Veedon Fleece is a breezy and brief affair, as well as a deep dive into New Orleans influenced gospel and R&B, replete with fine performances from the artist and his band. Working with Dr. John as a producer, the record certainly does not belie its title – it's unquestionably a departure from his previous masterpiece. Somewhat surprisingly, he doesn't always seem at home in what might feel like a natural idiom. Soul workouts like "It Fills You Up" never really catch fire, and closing track "A Cold Wind In August" seems to strive for some of the slow building profundity of his earlier work, but the effect is curiously forced. A Period Of Transition has a nice, gospel-tinged laissez les bon temps rouler vibe to it, abundant horns and lots of spots where Van really goes for it. But, inevitably, when transitioning away from something like Veedon Fleece, the results are going to be mixed at best.
Hymns To The Silence (1991)
Van's got a hell of a lot on his mind on 1991's ambitious double album Hymns To The Silence, ranging from the customarily cranky music business critique "Professional Jealousy" which opens the record on an odd note, to the frankly unsuccessful underdog's ballad "Village Idiot". Morrison spends much of the album's capacious running time in a seemingly rotten mood, and while there are sublime melodies and tasteful arrangements enough to go around, ninety minutes is a long time to spend in a room with rock music's most contemptuous legend. Needless to say, there are exceptions -- Van couldn't put his shoulder into any album this length and not come out with some gems, even if he wanted to. The romantic torch ballad "Take Me Home" conjures an aura of wondrous melancholy, and the puckish "Why Must I Always Explain?" puts his paranoid braggadocio in the best possible light. But the overall effect of Hymns To The Silence is Van unloading a particularly large haul from the backhoe of his brain ---- too often exhausting rather than exhilarating.
What's Wrong With This Picture? (2003)
This 2003 entry into Van's voluminous catalog is beautifully written and arranged, but so willfully anachronistic as to beg the question of whether Morrison truly wished that music had stopped entirely in 1962. The slow burning, six-minute title track is a gorgeously curated piece of white soul - profoundly lovely, but nearly too familiar in its Everly-Brothers-meet-Mose-Allison execution. Meanwhile, a mid-tempo version of the standard "Saint James Infirmary" feels almost completely perfunctory - fun for the singer no doubt, but lending next to no new insight to this much performed chestnut. What IS great is the spirited collaboration with Lightnin' Hopkins "Stop Drinking", which ambles gamely into this otherwise staid occasion with the irascible charm of the neighborhood hobo spiking the punch. What's wrong with this picture is there ain't a lot more of that!
Too Long In Exile (1993)
Van's maiden voyage on new label Polydor kicks off with the title track, where he carps endlessly about, well, being in exile for too long, just like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, amongst other Hibernian heavy hitters. He follows this with "Big Time Operators", a litany of complaints against the music scene bigwigs that, evidently, talked shit about him, tried to have him busted for drugs, bugged his apartment, attempted to have him deported -- the usual shuck and jive that forces an artist into hiding. Anyway, Van's got a few things to say and a couple of axes to grind on Too Long In Exile, and that is a little bit of a bummer listen, but he lightens up a bit by the third track, a cover of "Lonely Avenue" and things do improve from there. There are some real highs on the artist's twenty-second release, including a reimagined version of his earliest single, "Gloria" that includes John Lee Hooker and is well-worth the price of admission.
The Healing Game (1997)
Released not quite two years after Van the Man celebrated his golden jubilee, The Healing Game is the portrait of the artist as a Christian man that needs to patch up a few raw nerves and irritate a couple of longstanding old wounds. The record opens with the smooth, gospel-y, Book-of-Revelations elegy to salvation, "Rough God Goes Riding", wherein the artist suggests that we're probably all screwed if we're not saved. So that's nice. There's also the usual complaint-against-the-man-filing on "This Weight" that we know and love Van for, though he does accede that rock and roll initially set him free before it crushed his spirit nearly completely. But it's not all sturm and drang -- Van has a lot of passion and curiosity left, as evidenced on tracks like "Fire In The Belly" and "Burning Ground", which suggest that he still has work to do. So much the better for all of us.
Keep It Simple (2008)
For the first time in over a decade, Morrison elected to release an album that consists entirely of new material, and the result is something that sounds fresh and invigorated. Serving as an ideal companion piece to his 2005 record Magic Time, Van uses the eleven tracks on Keep It Simple to explore his myriad influences that he's drawn from since the beginning of his career -- R&B, the blues, traditional Irish, gospel, jazz -- and revisit the well of his usual lyrical themes. "School Of Hard Knocks" is a standard issue airing of paranoid grievances against those who "brainwashed the suckers" with their "propaganda" and how he got "left high and dry" after crashing against the rocks. But there's a liveliness in the track that has been missing in these sorts of songs for some time. His ode to teetotalism "Don't Go To Nightclubs Anymore" is a fun, bluesy rejoinder to "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and sounds like he's liberated from the drink rather than oppressed by the lifestyle change. And the title track is both a cautionary tale and a powerful lesson -- "We got to keep it simple to save ourselves". Seems like he's figured quite a bit out after four decades in the game.
Born To Sing: No Plan B (2012)
Van's 2012 release is both his most recent and his most irreverent in some time. Morrison can be funnier than hell, as he allows on the opening track "Open The Door (To Your Heart)", when he opines "Nobody gets what they want/ Everybody just gets fat/ What's the use in that?", the sort of real-politique worldview one would sooner expect from Randy Newman or Warren Zevon. The crushing "End Of The Rainbow" evokes the late, great Chet Baker, a man who knew a thing or two about a dismal end. The fearful, knowing "If In Money You Trust" advises "it's not enough." It never is.
Magic Time (2005)
Magic Time could serve quite adequately as a primer of Morrison's influences for a new generation of listeners, should such a thing ever be required. The record touches on everything from the traditional ("Celtic New Year") to the blues ("Evening Train" and "Carry On Regardless" are real standouts) to his heroes (interpretations of "This Love Of Mine", "I'm Confessin'" and "Lonely And Blue") to himself for god's sake ("The Lion This Time" is a charming sequel to his great "Listen To The Lion" from Saint Dominic's Preview) and hits everything in between over the course of an hour-long run time. One might expect that by 2005, Van Morrison should have assumed an emeritus status and rested on his not insubstantial laurels, but instead he delivered a delightful collection of fully realized, full-voiced material and doesn't appear to be in the mood to slow down whatsoever.
1978's Wavelength is the last table setter before Morrison's late 70's and 80's run of classics. Moreso than its predecessor A Period Of Transition, this seems like the real transition - opener "Kingdom Hall" is a remarkable distillation of his early soul classics combined with a rock edge and a gospel atmosphere. The utterly unique sound he would arrive at the following year with Into The Music and pursue at least through Avalon Sunset is nearly developed here -- Morrison seems practically pregnant with it. The burbling synths and New Wave style drums of the title track border on the revelatory and would not sound out of place on the Destroyer classic Kaputt. Still, the stitches are showing on the nine-minute closer "Take It Where You Find It", a would-be epic that is ultimately drowned in its overly bright arrangement of ostentatious guitar, synths and gospel singers. Van is close to a whole new musical vocabulary, but no laurel yet.
Hard Nose The Highway (1973)
1973's Hard Nose The Highway suffers somewhat unfairly in reputation, in the same way as the Rolling Stones' Goat's Head Soup. That is to say that it is a highly accomplished record with no shortage of highlights, but is nevertheless demonstrably less fully realized than the series of masterpieces that proceeded and followed it. Opening track "Snow In St. Anselmo" is an ambitious, half-successful collaboration with the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus, which hints broadly at the triumphal heights that would soon occur on Veedon Fleece. Meanwhile the title track is a lilting, free association that updates his previous "Cannonball", and imbues it with a new kind of lyrical, lived-in poetry that would become a future trademark. Hard Nose The Highway is the kind of imperfect but still fascinating record that exists in every great career artist's catalog. Van's headed somewhere amazing on this road trip, he just hasn't gotten all the way there yet.
Van's 1990 offer Enlightenment dwells to great effect on the ecstatic nature of Morrison's profound religious conviction, resulting in great upbeat gospel numbers like the killer opener "Real Real Gone" and the off the cuff improvised brilliance of "Youth Of A 1000 Summers". As with his frienemy Bob Dylan, Van's spiritual exertions tend to yield work somewhere between the tiresome and the transcendent. Here the balance is decidedly on the latter side, with buoyant performances and exciting arrangements making Enlightenment one of his greatest albums of the 90's. Bonus points for Van's truly strange and wonderful collaboration with Irish poet Paul Durcan on "The Days Before Rock And Roll", proof that his experimental spirit is far from dormant.
Down The Road (2002)
Down The Road doesn't vary the blues/folk/country formula overly much, but it has the advantage of finding the singer in a more engaging, less dyspeptic spirit than had been the case on recent releases. Rather than raging endlessly at the perceived demons of the music industry, Van seems to be genuinely enjoying himself on the engaging workingman's blues of "Chopping Wood" and sounds positively giddy on the amorous come-on of "Won't You Meet Me In The Indian Summer?" For a man of Morrison's gifts it is practically metabolically impossible for him to render an hour of music that doesn't contain at least some greatness. But Down The Road is an apt demonstration of the ways in which Van in a celebratory mood is far more ingratiating than Van yelling at cloud.
Common One (1980)
Common One is a curious entry into Van Morrison's catalog – after several attempts at reinventing himself post-Veedon Fleece, there is the sense that perhaps he has arrived at some kind peace by 1980, having made a full turn into Christianity and a full return to the sprawling and more experimental form of earlier works like Astral Weeks. The record emphatically ain't Astral Weeks, but it is an interesting, often exquisite listen. Departing from the quick and dirty R&B workouts of recent vintage, Van stretches out in a bed of haunting and gauzy string arrangements punctuated by lone horns and synths. The two tracks that clock in at over 15 minutes ("Summertime In England" and "When Heart Is Open") are so lively and lovely, respectively, that they just narrowly escape the possibility of overstaying their welcome. Van seems to have figured out quite a bit about himself at this point and appears to be poised for evermore greatness.
Irish Heartbeat (1988)
Van Morrison's collaboration with the Chieftains proved a worthwhile outing for all and sundry -- the restless rock star found solace in his Irish roots while the beloved Celtic band explored new musical ground alongside the great R&B and soul singer. The record is comprised mostly of Irish folk songs as well as reimaginings of Van's original material and is a charming listen. Van's vocals are a perfect match for the Chieftains' traditional instrumentation and the result is both timeless and innovative.
Poetic Champions Compose (1987)
By the time of this 1987 release, the polymath musician Van Morrison had chosen the saxophone as his preferred instrument, which explains the evocative opening five-minute instrumental "Spanish Steps" -- a be-bop inspired gesture that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Wowee Zowee. Typical of Van (and of Pavement) he immediately follows with one of his best and catchiest songs, the perplexing and ingratiating "The Mystery", which proceeds to reveal both everything and nothing about the author's intent. In this iteration, the older Morrison is reminiscent of recent Bill Callahan - a man intimate with language, music, and the human experience, but still missing a fundamental connection. "When I forgot that love existed/ I remembered what was truly real".
It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974)
1974's It's Too Late To Stop Now is a wonderful snapshot of an ingenious artist riding high, embraced by a dedicated audience and seemingly incapable of doing wrong. The sense of infallibility is increased by the double album status of the record, which includes nine plus minutes of "Caravan" and a definitively devastating rendition of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home". Best of all is the remarkable version of "Into The Mystic", possibly Van's best song, when he lets loose on the title refrain. God damned right -- we couldn't stop now if we wanted to.
Into The Music (1979)
1979's Into The Music kicks off with two of Van's best up-tempo pop tunes in years, the sprightly soul of "Bright Side Of The Road" and the driving rock-gospel of "Full Force Gale", a one-two punch that reflects the vigorous spirit of this outstanding middle period effort. Per the title, Van seems deeply invested in this material, and on a bit of a caffeine rush at that. Even the eight-minute philosophical rumination "And The Healing Has Begun" is filled with vocal exhortations of the kind James Brown used to fire up his JB's with. This incarnation of Van is a long ways from the garage days of "Gloria", but "Into The Music" finds him bristling with an uncommon, and welcome, vehemence.
Avalon Sunset (1989)
The peculiar fact that 1989's Avalon Sunset yielded one of Van's biggest hits in "Have I Told You Lately" remains surprising in light of the album's highly spiritual tone, as represented by the opening homily "Whenever God Shines His Light". But dig deeper and this is a record of profound religious reckoning and fearful doubting, one that asks hard questions and isn't necessarily contented with the answers. Again and again Van looks to the spirits of previous ages to find unnerving assurance, and comes back with only cold comfort. From early century country-blues to the hard rain reckonings of 1970's Bob Dylan, rock and roll has looked to consecrate its accommodation with religion. Surely we've never been closer than this.
Beautiful Vision (1982)
Van has never been coy about his gifts, and so maybe the lyrics to the title track of this tremendous 1982 release could be interpreted as arrogance: "Beautiful vision/ stay with me all the time". Surrounded by the context of the beatific atmosphere of this gorgeous record, it feels more like a prayer than a boast. Whatever the case, this is another collection of unforgettable Morrison songs, from the amiable pop of "Cleaning Windows" and "Dweller On The Threshold" to the slow burn instrumental of "Scandinavia", which anticipates Sigur Rós years before their emergence. It takes a true visionary to know when winter is coming.
Tupelo Honey (1971)
1971's Tupelo Honey is the least of the great R&B-based records that Morrison released between 1970 and 1972, which is no grave insult. It's still an extraordinary achievement, beginning with the unimpeachable classic "Wild Nights" and maintaining a convivial atmosphere throughout, up to and including the Elvis Presley-haunted romantic contemplation of the wonderful gospel-themed title track. This is Van's version of his American twin Bob Dylan's New Morning. A fantasy rendering of domestic bliss that feels only too beguiling.
Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983)
The bizarre, but still thrilling Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart does its level best to defy categorization. Awash in a placid stream of atmospherics, it barely touches on the rock and soul idiom that has so long been Morrison's template. Like a distinctly Irish take on late period Roxy Music, the release seems eager to challenge the album form altogether. Gorgeous instrumental digressions morph into romantic pop, balladry and then digress formless again. Melodies occur seemingly haphazard and improvised and then reoccur as though conjured. Some believed Van had gone crazy by this point. Another interpretation is that he had finally figured out yet more things the rest of us don't know.
Van's most explicitly commercial record could superficially be interpreted as a response to Astral Weeks, the experimental record that proceeded it, set minds aflame, but lacked mass appeal. Here we have Morrison retreating into a series of three to four minute pop confections, eschewing the more bewildering aspects of his previous release, but leaving none of the Celtic soul behind. There is something eerie about the way Van segues so easily back into the pop craft that yielded his early hits, but it doesn't make the material any less potent. "Caravan" and the title track would go on to become standards. The stunning, plainspoken spirituality of "Into The Mystic" is perhaps his greatest composition to date, and a crucial window into the places this Irish Rover would take us next. Rarely has a determined course correction towards the mainstream yielded such unforgettably wonderful results.
Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
As a handful of fantastic concert albums attest, Van Morrison is a scintillating live performer, but none is a better representation of his curious onstage magnetism as 1984's fantastic Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast. Having recently returned to Ireland following an extended residence abroad, he clearly enjoys his prodigal status as much as his audience. And fronting an exquisite band, absolutely everything works: from rocked up workups of recent up-tempo tunes like "Dweller On The Threshold" and "Full Force Gale", to a brilliant, free-associating reading of the meditative "Rave On, John Donne", to a crushingly lovely version of the soul standard "It's All In The Game", it's clear this native son has made it back with every intention of reclaiming the domain. Anyone interested in Van's doings in the 1980's would be well advised to begin here.
His Band And Street Choir (1970)
Van's second record of 1970 captures an artist so profoundly entrenched in his vision that he couldn't make a bad album for trying. An unending series of R&B and folk chestnuts, beginning with the great, horn-driven "Domino" and featuring likewise brilliant, direct-to-the-pleasure-center workouts like "I've Been Working" and "Green Money", Van throws off another classic like just so much tip money.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
This criminally overlooked 1986 release can be easily read as the final chapter of a trilogy made up with Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. An older vintage of Van, but one still in brilliant voice, takes one more psychic journey through his Irish past in a song cycle so preoccupied with autumnal nostalgia that it can be nearly overwhelming to both performer and listener at once. On the lovely, unhurried opener "Got To Go Back", he allows, "Don't give me port or whiskey/ Don't play anything sentimental/ It will make me cry". For fifty gorgeous minutes, Van reckons and wrestles with his mortality, his spirituality, his triumphs and his roads not taken. The synth and sax heavy arrangements -- derided at the time for being unacceptably sedate -- now seem like a premonition of universally praised records by Destroyer and Bon Iver 25 years later. The takeaway: don't sleep on Van. Just because you don't understand what he's doing, doesn't mean he doesn't know perfectly well.
Saint Dominic's Preview (1972)
1972's St. Dominic's Preview found Van on the best commercial run of his career, turning out hit singles and radio staples at a rapid rate on his previous three albums. This record delivers another great one, the winsome "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" - a perfect, infectious horn-inflected tribute to the late soul legend and as undeniable a hit as anything he has ever written. But on this knotty, beautiful and complicated album, one observes Morrison's artistically restless side emerging again, with bold assertiveness on tracks like the ten-plus-minute closer "Almost Independence Day" and the even longer still slow burn of side two's mission statement "Listen To The Lion", which features one of his greatest ever vocals. Best of all is the title track, a secular hymn that simultaneously addresses his ambivalence about the excesses of the music industry and reconnects him with his spiritual roots. Powerful work from an artist on a major league winning streak.
Astral Weeks (1968)
One of the most profound, innovative and moving records in the history of the rock tradition, Astral Weeks established Van Morrison as a young songwriter of nearly frightening depth and vision. The opening title track is a terrifically mysterious and compelling invitation into a world of wonder with stakes too high to take lightly: "If I ventured in the slip stream/ Between the viaducts of your dream/ Could you find me?" Indelibly great songs like "Sweet Thing" and "Madame George" follow, embodying characters and circumstances that feel at once intimately relatable and utterly mythic. Few records in the tradition offer an experience so gratifying, challenging and cathartic.
Veedon Fleece (1974)
Van The Man's greatest record brings together all of his vast strengths into a single document resplendent with humor, pain, longing and passionate celebration of humanity and nature. From the gorgeous jazz inflected opener "Fair Play" until the dark, and ruminative folk of the tense closing track "Country Fair", the artist hits nary a false note, one sublime moment following next in a an almost painfully moving tapestry. Veedon Fleece is Astral Weeks' older, wiser cousin -- still embroidering deep Celtic mystery over the anxiety of modern life, but more mature, more lived in, and ultimately sadder and more affecting. For all of Morrison's "copycats" no artist could ever replicate this music of idiosyncratic transcendence.