Does Van Morrison really matter anymore? It’s a valid question, and one which some people were asking even as far back as the 1970’s. Certainly the man has remained one of the most enigmatic and, dare I say, mystical figures of popular music, whose lyrics can be as compelling and impenetrable as any metaphysical poet from the 16th century. What is certain is that Morrison is not your average Irish Troubadour, who could go from relatively straightforward R&B singer one moment, then morph into mystical preacher the next, ever pondering the depths of human experience. Morrison has that rare ability and gift in being able to take the seemingly mundane and turn it into something truly profound, like William Blake or William Wordsworth.
Morrison began his career proper in the mid 1960’s with the hit singles “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl”, establishing himself as a solid R&B/rock and roll performer. So far so good; but then something unexpected happened, 1968’s Astral Weeks, an album so universally celebrated by critics that any denouncement of its merits would immediately be deemed an act of blasphemy. But more brilliance was to follow. 1970’s Moondance for instance, was and remains his most popular album, thanks largely to the superb ‘romance by candlelight’ title track. Each subsequent LP, while not always consistent, still had their fair share of transcendental moments, notably 1971’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview released the year after. However when Van underwent a bitter divorce in late 1973, losing custody of his daughter in the process, he decided to return to his beloved Ireland, following a six year absence, no doubt to contemplate and mend his mind and soul. 1974 saw the release of Veedon Fleece, a record which was largely dismissed or overlooked at the time (Rolling Stone was especially scornful), though is generally regarded as something of a ‘misunderstood masterpiece’ today.
The album opens with the plaintive and restful “Fair Play”, a piano dominated ballad with lyrical references to Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Thoreau. Van sings “Let your midnight and your daytime turn into love of life/It’s a very fine line”, and later “A paperback book/As we walk down the street/Fill my mind with tales of mystery, mystery/And imagination.”
“Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” is not so much a song but more of a vehicle for Morrison’s lyrical sense of narrative, concerned with a dysfunctional Irishman living in America. “Who Was That Masked Man” is all semi-falsetto vocals by the man himself, where Morrison questions his role as an artist under constant scrutiny by the critics and public. Van takes the album to a more haunting height, with “Streets of Arklow”, where he sings “And as we walked/Through the streets of Arklow/And the colour of the day wore on/And our heads were filled with poetry.” Clearly this was Morrison revisiting his true heartland, reconnecting with his roots.
“You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” is a strange title, with an even stranger arrangement. It’s an emotive, stream of consciousness piece, with lots of jazzy flute and piano, and Van’s unmistakable turn of phrase, where all he’s doing is “looking for the Veedon Fleece”. If one is into Astral Weeks, then this is your number.
Side two starts off with “Bulbs”, a Celtic-country rocker, and which is about as lively and jolly as this album gets. Things slow down with “Cul de Sac”, another semi country tune, where Van is, you guessed it, in reflective mood. Just think “Madame George” with Nashville guitar instead of piano.
On “Comfort You” Van gets all soft and tender, and could be a paean to his daughter or new found fiancé, or maybe both. It’s a lovely song all the same, with a strong meditative quality. “Come Here My Love” is an acoustic plea for deliverance through love, while album closer “Country Fair” sees Van in more traditional Irish mode, searching for the true meaning by reaching back to far more simpler times; something which we all do when experiencing periods of self doubt and anxiety.
After Veedon Fleece, Morrison would embark on a three year sabbatical from touring and recording (with the exception of his appearance at The Band’s The Last Waltz in 1976), not surprising considering that he had released some seven albums in the space of only five years. And what of the album title itself? For years Van insisted that the name “didn’t mean anything”, having just made it up. So whatever it may or may not have represented, what is true is that Veedon Fleece is nothing less than a spiritual quest, a search for meaning, as well as purpose. And just as the mythical Golden Fleece symbolized wealth and majesty, Morrison’s own pursuit is far more elegiac and religious in nature. Above all else, this is an extremely personal and poetic album, which oddly enough Van himself had ignored for many years afterwards, for reasons known only to him. So, anyone who might have been yearning for another Astral Weeks, this was about as good as it would ever get (unless you count 2009’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl), and marks the end of the most important creative period in Van’s life. Rarely would he be so inspired again. And by the way, to answer my original question, yes, he really does still matter.
I should also say that the remastered edition is the one to own, and has two bonus tracks, the languid, after midnight “Twilight Zone” (which first appeared on The Philosopher’s Stone compilation), and an alternative version of “Cul de Sac”.