Astral Years: A Seeker's Guide To Van Morrison
In The '80s
Here is only some of Brad Nelson’s brilliant essay on Van in the 1980s. Just when you thought the Eighties were complete rubbish with the hair, the fashion, the synth driven music - Mr Nelson steps in to tell that at least one performer was making music of interest. Click here for the full article.
Van’s ‘80s records had a kind of uneven relationship with contemporary recording techniques; he never resisted the studio discipline he absorbed from John Lee Hooker, which required that songs be recorded quickly and severely—”in and out,” as Van characterises it. And he never committed fully to gated reverb and exotic banks of synthesisers, even as other avatars of the ‘60s (from Dylan to the Rolling Stones) did.
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Van’s last album for Warner Bros., is at least half-crowded with instrumentals, unusual for an artist whose music tends to orbit the intermittent flares of his voice. Among the instrumentals is the closer, September Night, which moves in a drowsy and distracted way, as if sleepwalking through its changes. A woman’s voice spectrally hovers over a drifting blush of synths, giving the track a haunted feeling, like air stirring through an abandoned building. Throughout the ‘80s, Van’s records slowly became populated by these gleaming, frictionless pieces, to which he’d contribute piano and saxophone, an instrument he first learned when he was a teenager.
Beautiful Vision acts as a kind of template for Van’s ‘80s career: It seems executed with incredible ease while also feeling rich and deliberate in its texture. Here, he begins to contemplate his adolescence in Belfast, which had previously environmentally figured into Cyprus Avenue from Astral Weeks, and which consumes his focus more and more as he gets deeper into the Reagan Era. He dedicates an entire song to his first job (Cleaning Windows), the efficacy and simplicity of which is simulated in the music. On songs like Celtic Ray, he incorporates a mysticism and an investment in ancient Britain that had only subtly manifested in his work beforehand. “All over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales,” he sings, “I can hear the mother’s voices calling / ‘Children, children, children.’” Uilleann pipes stir through the mix. This mysticism would evolve into a more shapeless and extraterrestrial religious fixation, which throughout the decade would be fulfilled by varieties of meditation and discipline, including a flirtation with Scientology.
The title of 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher was intended to distract from Morrison’s drift between alternative spiritualities; from here on out, he creates a more abstract and holistic universe, using a Protestant vocabulary to contemplate something more elusive and indefinite. He sings the album title in the song In the Garden, almost whispering it between a minimally stirring piano and acoustic guitar: “No guru, no method, no teacher / Just you and I and nature / And the Father in the garden.” This was the most acclaimed of Van’s ‘80s records, considered a return to the ambiguous and swelling designs of Astral Weeks. Flutes thread through it; the unstable anatomies of the songs are occasionally vertiginous, as if motivated upward by gusts of air. It’s also the first record on which Van’s voice seems to have endured some erosion: He occupies a lower register, and his range seems slightly collapsed, but it enriches his phrasing.
Van’s evolving spirituality is totally developed on 1989’s Avalon Sunset, where at least two songs are directly pitched to God, including Whenever God Shines His Light a duet with British vocalist Cliff Richard. While the verses reiterate gospel-derived contemplations of God (“In deep confusion, in great despair / When I reach out for him, he is there”), the chorus dissolves into a meditative, almost narcotic humming. There’s an ambiguity in the direction of Van’s spiritual longing, a tension and space that implies more than it directly communicates. His hymns for the most part, whether addressed to God or a “universal magnet” (as in 1980’s Summertime in England), seem to acknowledge and are captivated by some kind of ulcerating absence.
1991’s Hymns to the Silence, is Van’s only double album. The first disc of is a very odd, distracted constellation of songs that mostly describe Van’s professional dissatisfactions. Some take the shape of traditional blues, while others resemble the bright, condensed bursts produced by Tin Pan Alley in the early 1900s. It’s as if Van thinks silence is most appropriately honoured when one does as many things as possible with it. It doesn’t sound like Astral Weeks, but its restlessness seems to emanate from a familiar source—as Van described it once, “a desire to break out of this rigidity.”
The second disc of Hymns to the Silence contains two monologues like Coney Island, Van’s voice shattering like autumn leaves over soft, pneumatic synths. The first of them, On Hyndford Street, is one of the many places on the record where the silence of the album title manifests. “Take me back,” Van says. “Take me way, way back, on Hyndford Street, where you could feel the silence at half past 11 on long summer nights.” Silence is a feature of memory; we tend to remember things with their sounds substituted or deleted entirely. Van sees a power in this noiselessness, a kind of religious flourish. It’s a loss, but it’s a loss that lands in his life with dimension. It’s this breed of silence that Ireland shares with its language and mythology, the silence that characterises its isolation from the rest of the world.
If Van’s devotion to silence begins in 1980, with the album Common One, which was recorded at Super Bear Studios in the Alpes-Maritimes, near the city of Nice, though its music implies a greater seclusion. John Jeremiah Sullivan, in an essay about Bunny Wailer, identified it as “an island effect,” describing both Jamaica and Ireland. “Isolation does seem to produce these intensities sometimes,” he wrote. “You think of Ireland, for instance, a backwater in so many ways, and yet: Yeats, Beckett, Joyce, in one century—how does that happen?”
On Summertime in England from Common One Van sings about walking “down by Avalon” just as he calls his own music Caledonian soul—real geographies whose names and meanings have drifted into myth. His shut eyes perform a series of micro-blinks, as if caught in the design of a trance. He’s lost in the music, wading through its textures. “Yeats and Lady Gregory corresponded,” he sings, his voice like an elusive, enigmatic pulse. In Morrison’s mouth, a phrase will mutate and distend and rubberise. “Corresponded! / James Joyce wrote streams of consciousness / Books / T.S. Eliot joined Lloyd’s bank / T.S. Eliot published Joyce / Published Joyce published Joyce published Joyce published Joyce.” Later he sings, “It ain’t why why why why why why why / It just is,” and he sings each why as if it were an individual animal. He signals the band with a convulsive movement of his arm—Van’s bands have always acted as sensitive ecosystems—and the horns reduce their volume to a spectral hum. Into the remaining space, arctic in its emptiness, Van leans toward his microphone and whispers, “Can you feel the silence?”