(Continuing the reviews of the “new — to me — Van Morrison albums begun in last week’s post.)
Magic Time opens a bit awkwardly, with the lyrics of the first cut, “Stranded,” including “the devil and the deep blue sea.” That’s perhaps too much MOR for Morrison, who famously sang, on “Hard Nose the Highway”: “Ain’t that some interpretation/When Sinatra sings/Against Nelson Riddle strings/ Then takes a vacation.”
But it bounces back with the charming “Celtic New Year,” and the sassy shuffle “Keep Mediocrity at Bay.” There are a couple chestnuts in the middle of the CD, one blues, the other a crooner, but they’re followed by “Just Like Greta” — in which, like Garbo, the narrator just wants to be alone.
Another not-so-notable R&B callback, “Lonely and Blue” is sandwiched between two songs that reference earlier Morrison songs, “Gypsy in My Soul” and “The Lion This Time,” the latter channeling the epic “Listen to the Lion” from St. Dominic’s Preview.
The title cut is nostalgic, without being saccharine or sentimental, but the lyric and the vocal are by no means Van’s best stuff, and the music isn’t all that interesting. “They Sold Me Out” is better, an embittered manifesto against being used — “My own people did it to me/Just ’cause they could” — with a nice guitar break in the middle.
“Carry on Regardless” has a a funky, shuffle beat and an R&B ensemble backing, but the lyrics are an interesting juxtaposition. They’re partly a swipe at the media and entertainment industries — but also an homage to the Carry On series of British comedy films, and the song concludes with Morrison laughing and saying something about “havin’ too much fun.”
Back on Top has a bunch of good stuff, although not as much as the two albums aforementioned. “Philosopher’s Stone,” a reference to the Holy Grail of the ancient alchemists, is a perfect theme for Morrison, and he does it well. “When the Leaves Come Falling Down” could be a callback to “Moondance,” but stands well on its own.
“High Summer” is one of those songs where you wish Morrison hadn’t insisted that his work isn’t based on real-life experiences. Like in “Madame George” or “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights,” you wonder where he found such characters.
“Precious Time” boasts the wonderful lines, “It doesn’t matter to which God you pray/Precious time is slipping away.” “New Biography” is another shot across the bows of those who use others, and “Reminds Me of You” and “Golden Autumn Day” are lovely, extended pieces.
Avalon Sunset was a commercial (at least in the U.K.) and critical success at the time, and includes two songs that are on the one “best of” album I own. Both “Whenever God Shines His Light” (a duet with one-time “English Elvis” Cliff Richard) and “Have I Told You Lately” reflected Morrison’s increased religiosity in that era (as did “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God”), and were successful singles, particularly in the U.K.
“Coney Island” is interesting, almost a spoken-word piece, seemingly a travelogue of a day’s outing — not quite like anything Van had done before, other than perhaps “Almost Independence Day.” But there’s not much else on the album that has really grabbed me so far.
The four albums that my brother picked up for me span nearly two decades of Morrison’s half-century-long musical career. They prove that Van the Man was still able, 20 years and on after his breakthrough, to write great lyrics, backed by compelling vocal stylistics and arrangements, and put together talented ensembles to perform it all. Truly, one of The Music’s singular geniuses.
Jimbo called me the other night to ask about some more albums, so it’s likely I’ll have at least two more “new” Van Morrison LPs before too long. But I still have a long way to go — he’s done 40 studio albums; I have 15. And he just released a new one late last year.