At the end of 1971, Van Morrison had released four solo albums, each very different from the one before. From the enigmatic, Baroque folk-jazz of Astral Weeks, the domestic bucolic bliss of Moondance, the communal neo-hippie wanderings of His Band And The Street Choir, to the breezy, country excursions of Tupelo Honey, it seemed that Van had pretty much done it all, and said everything he needed to. But there was only one problem; Van’s ever restless poetic spirit, a spirit that would play itself out on Saint Dominic’s Preview, an LP concerned with all manner of inner and outer conflict, be it his failing marriage to Janet “Planet” Rigsbee, the sectarian violence in his home town of Belfast, or Morrison’s own elegiac quest to create a new kind of soul music, one based on his own individual vision of expression.
The album opens with the joyous “Jackie Wilson (I’m In Heaven When You Smile),” an uplifting soul/jazz piece replete with horns, and a vocal by Morrison that simply oozes swagger. Van sounds a little less sure of himself on the agreeable yet over cooked “Gypsy,” a song that comes across as an outtake from Moondance. Morrison sleep walks his way through the bluesy “I Will Be There,” before making amends with the 11 minute “Listen To The Lion,” which originally concluded side one.
“Listen To The Lion” is what devotees of Astral Weeks (at least all 30 odd thousand of them) had been long waiting for. The song was originally demoed during sessions for Moondance in 1969, but left on the shelf. Another attempt was made for Tupelo Honey, yet that too was discarded. The version that appears here is absolutely transcendental, with Bill Church’s cascading, hypnotic bass lines and Morrison ranting like some possessed preacher who can no longer find words to express himself, instead grunting and growling as if in a state of religious reverie.
Side two begins with the superb title track, a song which was allegedly inspired by either a dream or premonition, depending on Van’s own ever changing recollections. And despite attempts to connect certain lyrics with the hostilities occurring in Belfast at the time, one thing’s for sure, Morrison sounds desperately homesick and sentimental (“Shammy cleaning all the windows/Singing songs about Edith Piaf’s soul… Story block with you my friend/And it’s a long way to Buffalo/It’s a long way to Belfast city too”).
The rapturous “Redwood Tree” is also tinged with the weight of nostalgia, followed by the near despondent “Almost Independence Day,” on which Morrison’s seemingly stream-of-conscious expressions withdraw the veil that conceals his troubled soul, as if to say, ‘Everyone’s having a good time except for me.’ Over its ten minutes Van’s downcast voice conjures contrasting images of San Francisco, like a ghost observing the living, as Bernie Krause’s synthesiser lays down an ominous droning landscape.
One could easily say that every Van Morrison album from this era represented a period of transition, and Saint Dominic’s Preview is no exception. However what sets it apart from his previous works is this all pervading sense of a man in exile. With his marriage dissolving, and Belfast burning, despite its strengths musically, deep down Morrison was at that most solemn of crossroads, far from the pastoral idylls of Old Woodstock, fishing and gypsy caravans. Yet things were about to change, with the following year’s Hard Nose The Highway, thus opening up another chapter that would confuse and confound critics. Not that Van was all that interested in what they had to say anyway.