Astral Weeks (4.5) - While he’d been a recording artist for a while, and even been on the pop charts as a solo artist, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s first real album.It’s not the kind of album that grabs you immediately; like many of the great ones, it slowly sinks into your brain until you simply have to have it. It’s a late-night narcotic that evokes autumn. The title track begins with a simple bass run over two chords, setting the stage for Van to rap a stream of consciousness that barely rhymes, like a train travelling over the green hills before coming to the stop where he gets off. Astral Weeks is a slow burner, one that once you “get”, you understand that it truly is all good. This is where the legend of Caledonia soul, the Belfast Cowboy all began—gardens wet with rain, tree-lined streets, thinking back to simpler days and immersing oneself in literature and music.
A Period Of Transition (2) - It was three years between Veedon Fleece and the next Van Morrison album—an eternity in the ‘70s. The decision was made to lay down some generic tracks with Dr. John (credited under his given name of Mac Rebennack) as key collaborator and co-producer. Given the all-too obvious title A Period Of Transition, the album doesn’t really please.
Beautiful Vision (3) - This was more like it. Beautiful Vision presents another version of the Van Morrison recipe, setting up his general ‘80s style with soft pop and a few smooth jazz touches. Mark Isham is still on board for tootling via trumpet and synth. Tasteful use of uilleann pipes help Celtic Ray and Northern Muse (Solid Ground) along, both upbeat enough to kick the side into gear. Dweller On The Threshold is a whirling dervish of a song, and luckily the horns don’t get in the way. The title track and She Gives Me Religion sound a little alike until their choruses.
Wavelength (2.5) - Right off the bat, Wavelength seems to be a step in the right direction. Only a year after his return to the business, Van seems to have come to grips with the expectation of the marketplace. Even the cover was stylish, giving the consumer another crotch shot below an almost relaxed, confident stare captured in soft focus by the same guy who’d photographed Joni for the Hejira cover. The album isn’t immediately memorable. Kingdom Hall might suggest a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but overall it’s just a simple celebration of dancing and having fun.
Common One (2) - After the triumph of Into The Music came… this. Common One is an ironic title for an album that has no identity. Of the six tracks, the shortest is five minutes, while two are over fifteen. Haunts Of Ancient Peace is a promising start, a sinuous groove with understated horns. Summertime In England is a gallop over the same two chords through a couple of different tempos. Much of the vocal is mushmouthed, and the few lyrics that cut through cover the usual territories: William Blake, T.S. Eliot, a laundry list of poets, Avalon, and so forth, eventually fixating on the album title. As rambling as it is, collaborator Jeff Labes did construct a very precise string arrangement, but there’s just no tension or payoff.
Veedon Fleece (4) - Possibly because it doesn’t have a recognisable hit single, Veedon Fleece is one of Van’s lesser-known albums. Which is too bad, because it’s one of his most underrated. It also comes across as one of the more overtly Celtic albums in the canon. Not all of the songs have such touches, but there’s a pervading Irishness that goes right through to the green cover. With a gentle acoustic strum over two chords and colour from a piano, Fair Play is a sweet waltz, picking up whenever Van gets to scatting. Only four songs in Streets Of Arklow manages to be a nice distillation of the entire album instrumentally and thematically.
Tupelo Honey (3) - Life in the sticks was certainly agreeing with Van, based on the sunny, bucolic photos adorning the sleeve of Tupelo Honey. Here we see the country squire, long-haired, bearded and developing a gut, wandering along wooded lanes with horses, his lady and a cat. His R&B approach gets a little country colour, thanks to the occasional appearance of a pedal steel guitar, but it still has to cut through the Caledonia soul. Wild Night was the big hit, with its percolating bass line, but it’s Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball) that grabs your ears. Old Old Woodstock and Starting A New Life celebrate home and family, and You’re My Woman is an overt love song, building from basic verses to the repetitive cadences that would pepper his live performances.Moondance (3.5) - Having found a way to make the music he heard in his head, Van proceeded to record a collection of songs that covered all his interests—jazz, folk, country and even pop. Of all his records—and he’s got a lot—Moondance is still the best place for newbies to start. In a departure from the esoteric jazz sound of Astral Weeks, the album is overtly catchy, with memorable choruses and hooks aplenty. None so more than And It Stoned Me, which seemingly describes a journey to a fishing hole with a stop off at a guy who offers the narrator and his friends a welcome drink of water or something stronger.
Into The Music (5) - It took a few false starts, but Van managed to close the decade with a masterpiece. Like all his greats, Into The Music takes a while to get into. And like all his greats, it’s full of romance and religion beneath the surface. It’s true Caledonia soul, mixing Irish folk touches with R&B, along with such instruments as harmonica, banjo and Dobro, Appalachian influences that reflect just how huge American country-western is in Ireland. Some prominent musicians appear in support: Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, Pee Wee Ellis from the James Brown band, and a couple of refugees from ECM Records and John McLaughlin. None seem extraneous.
Hard Nose The Highway (3.5) - Nobody following along with Van thus far would have expected him to do some major departure from his basic style. But with Hard Nose The Highway, it could be said that this was his first weird album. The worst thing about this album is the cover, followed by the title. Those able to stomach the packaging enough to open the shrink wrap would be wise to buckle in for a strange trip. Snow In San Anselmo is an altogether disturbing song to start, with a ghostly choir chirping about, well, snow (in San Anselmo). There’s some give and take for a few verses, a couple of double-time jazz breaks and even an endorsement of the round-the-clock hospitality of the local pancake house.
Saint Dominic’s Preview (3) - So Van cut his hair, shaved and got divorced. He also started to split his pants, as shown on the cover of Saint Dominic’s Preview. This album follows evenly along his post-Moondance path, mixing horn-heavy soul and acoustic ruminations. As has become tradition, the opening track is what George Martin would call a potboiler. Here it’s Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile), wherein he takes joy in a song on the radio and scats along to another place. Others will disagree, but the over dramatic Gypsy with its predominant flute is a little grating. Likewise, I Will Be There isn’t as effective as some of his other jazz homages. As eleven-minute songs go, Listen To The Lion threatens to be tedious, but manages to hypnotise. The comparisons to Astral Weeks are well placed, and even the middle section where he starts growling (like, ahem, a lion) can be excused.
His Band And The Street Choir (3.5) - Van’s further flirtation with mainstream appeal continued with His Band And The Street Choir, an acoustic R&B album that’s even happier than Moondance. There’s only one song in a minor key, and even that’s a romantic one. The best songs still endure—Domino is a wonderful opener, with interesting interplay between the guitar and the horn section. We still have no idea what Crazy Face is about, even if it’s just a setup for his squawking two-note sax solo.