Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Van Morrison

  • His Band and Street Choir [Warner Bros., 1970] A
  • Moondance [Warner Bros., 1970] A+
  • Tupelo Honey [Warner Bros., 1971] A-
  • Saint Dominic's Preview [Warner Bros., 1972] A-
  • Hard Nose the Highway [Warner Bros., 1973] B-
  • It's Too Late to Stop Now [Warner Bros., 1974] A
  • Veedon Fleece [Warner Bros., 1974] B+
  • A Period of Transition [Warner Bros., 1977] B
  • Wavelength [Warner Bros., 1978] B+
  • Into the Music [Warner Bros., 1979] A
  • Common One [Warner Bros., 1980] B-
  • Beautiful Vision [Warner Bros., 1982] A-
  • Inarticulate Speech of the Heart [Warner Bros., 1983] B-
  • A Sense of Wonder [Mercury, 1985] C+
  • Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast [Mercury, 1985] B
  • No Guru, No Method, No Teacher [Mercury, 1986] B-
  • Poetic Champions Compose [Mercury, 1987] B+
  • Avalon Sunset [Mercury, 1989] A-
  • Enlightenment [Mercury, 1990] B+
  • The Best of Van Morrison [Mercury, 1990] A
  • Bang Masters [Epic, 1991] ***
  • Hymns to the Silence [Mercury, 1991] B+
  • Too Long in Exile [Polydor, 1993] A-
  • The Best of Van Morrison Volume Two [Polydor, 1993] *
  • A Night in San Francisco [Polydor, 1994] **
  • Days Like This [Polydor, 1995] *
  • The Healing Game [Polydor, 1997] Neither
  • The Philosopher's Stone [Polydor, 1998] Choice Cuts
  • Back on Top [Virgin, 1999] Neither
  • Down the Road [Universal, 2002] **
  • Magic Time [Geffen/Exile/Polydor, 2005] Choice Cuts
  • Pay the Devil [Lost Highway, 2006] Choice Cuts

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

His Band and Street Choir [Warner Bros., 1970]
Morrison is still a brooder--"Why did you leave America?" he asks over and over on the final cut, and though I'm not exactly sure what he's talking about, that sounds like a good all-purpose question/accusation to me--but not an obsessive one, and this is another half-step away from the acoustic late-night misery of Astral Weeks. As befits hits, "Domino" and especially "Blue Money" are more celebratory if no more joyous than anything on Moondance, showing off his loose, allusive white r&b at its most immediate. And while half of side two is comparatively humdrum, I play it anyway. A

Moondance [Warner Bros., 1970]
An album worthy of an Irish r&b singer who wrote a teen hit called "Mystic Eyes" (not to mention a Brill Building smash called "Brown Eyed Girl"), adding punchy brass (including pennywhistles and foghorn) and a solid backbeat (including congas) to his folk-jazz swing, and a popwise formal control to his Gaelic poetry. Morrison's soul, like that of the black music he loves, is mortal and immortal simultaneously: this is a man who gets stoned on a drink of water and urges us to turn up our radios all the way into (that word again) the mystic. Visionary hooks his specialty. A+

Tupelo Honey [Warner Bros., 1971]
Van seems to be turning into a machine and a natural man simultaneously. I like the machine a whole lot--this super-bouncy product is almost as rich in cute tunes as The Shirelles' Greatest Hits. But I worry that domestic bliss with Janet Planet--who here abandons liner notes to pose with hubby fore, aft, and centerfold--has been softening Van's noodle more than the joy of cooking requires. A-

Saint Dominic's Preview [Warner Bros., 1972]
"Jackie Wilson said it was reet petite," he shouts for openers, and soon has me believing that "I'm in heaven when you smile" says as much about the temporal and the eternal as anything in Yeats. "Listen to the lion," he advises later, referring to that lovely frightening beast inside each of us, and midway through the eleven-minute cut he lets the lion out, moaning and roaring and growling and stuttering in a scat extension that would do Leon Thomas proud. The point being that words--which on this album are as uneven as the tunes--sometimes say less than voices. Amen. A-

Hard Nose the Highway [Warner Bros., 1973]
The relaxed rhythms are just lax most of the time, the vocal surprises mild after St. Dominic's Preview, the lyrics dumbest when they're more than mood pieces, and the song construction offhand except on "Warm Love." B-

It's Too Late to Stop Now [Warner Bros., 1974]
Songs that wore poorly or were just lame in the first place have more force and rightness on this exemplary live album than in their studio versions, and "Here Comes the Night" sounds fresher than it did in 1965. In addition, Morrison documents his debt to blues and r&b definitively--you can hear Bobby Bland all over the record, and cover tributes are paid as well to Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cooke. A

Veedon Fleece [Warner Bros., 1974]
I count it as progress that his muse is feeding him baseball metaphors, but Morrison hasn't vented his Gaelic soul so unabashedly since Astral Weeks. He'd get away with it if there were more than one decent song on side two. Soothing, evocative late-night music that indulges his discursive side. Favorite title: "You Don't Pull No Punches but You Don't Push the River." B+

A Period of Transition [Warner Bros., 1977]
"It Fills You Up" and "Heavy Connection" work on chant power alone, but even they go on a little too long, and in general this is an unexciting record--but not definitively. It's full of the surprising touches--the (borrowed) instrumental intros to the blues that opens side one and the jump tune that opens side two, a throw-in couplet about Amsterdam that might as well have Van's fingerprints on it, and even the can't-always-get-what-you-need chorus on "Eternal Kansas City"--that signify talent putting out. I don't know; maybe that's depressing proof that this isn't just a warmup. But after three years, let's say it is. B

Wavelength [Warner Bros., 1978]
Unlike A Period of Transition, this is a good Van Morrison record, as up as any he's ever made, but it's certainly not a great one. You might pay attention to side two, an evocative reinterpretation of Van's America fixation, but side one is nothing more (and nothing less) than class programming. B+

Into the Music [Warner Bros., 1979]
The rockers are a little lightweight, the final cut drags halfway through, and that's all that's wrong with this record, including its tributes to "the Lord." You might get religion yourself if all of your old powers returned after years of failed experiments, half-assed compromises, and onstage crack-ups. Like that other godfearing singer-songwriter, Morrison has abandoned metaphorical pretensions, but only because he loves the world. His straightforward celebrations of town and country are colored and deepened by his musicians--especially sprightly violinist Toni Marcus (feh on Scarlet Rivera)--and by his own excursions into a vocalise that has never been more various or apt. The only great song on this record is "It's All in the Game," written by Calvin Coolidge's future vice-president in 1912. But I suspect it's Van's best album since Moondance. A

Common One [Warner Bros., 1980]
Sententious, torpid, abandoned by God, this six-song, fifty-five minute meander is Morrison's worst since Hard Nose the Highway--Astral Weeks fans even think so. He does have a direct line to certain souls, though, and they still hear him talkin'. As in fact do I, twice--on the only vaguely fast one, which goes "I'm satisfied/With my world," and on the truly nutball "Summer in England," which goes "Did you ever hear about/Wordsworth and Coleridge, baby?" B-

Beautiful Vision [Warner Bros., 1982]
After a period of transition, Van has finally achieved the eternal Kansas City--this music is purely gorgeous (or at times lovely), its pleasure all formal grace and aptness of invention. Only "Cleaning Windows," a cheerful, visionary, deeply eccentric song about class and faith and culture, stands among his great tunes. But every one of these songs makes itself felt as an individual piece of music. And every one fits into the whole. A-

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart [Warner Bros., 1983]
In this troubled time, rock-and-rollers have every right to place their faith in the Jehovah's Witnesses or even Scientology when they discover that Jackie Wilson didn't say it all. But to follow one with the other appears weakminded, like praising Omar Khayyam in tandem with Kahlil Gibran. A hypothesis which the static romanticism of these reels-for-Hollywood-orchestra and other slow songs bears out. B-

A Sense of Wonder [Mercury, 1985]
By marrying r&b usages to Celtic mysticism in an art that honors both and then some, Morrison proved there was more to r&b than even Ray Charles had dreamed. But when inspiration fails him, he's left with uninspired art. At his most automatic, Charles still has r&b. C+

Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast [Mercury, 1985]
Where you file this de facto best-of from Van's slackest and most spiritual period depends on whether you mourn Astral Weeks or Moondance. I'm putting it in the reference library. B

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher [Mercury, 1986]
No soap radio, no particular place to go, no man is an island. No spring chicken, No-Doz, no can do. B-

Poetic Champions Compose [Mercury, 1987]
His first interesting album in five years sounds best as a CD for the same reason it isn't all that interesting--in his current spiritual state, which could last until he rages against the dying of the light, he doesn't much care about interesting. He just wants to roll on, undulating from rhythmic hill to melodic dale. If only he'd resequenced the third-stream instrumental "Celtic Excavation" so that it closed the full-length digital work instead of opening its nonexistent second side, he'd have framed his dinner music perfectly. Yeah, dinner music--I figure if it doesn't make me want to vomit, it must have something going for it. B+

Avalon Sunset [Mercury, 1989]
Like it or not, Morrison's genre exercises are kind of boring. Having long since sold his soul to his Muse, he's her slave for life, and though he keeps importuning various gods to loose his chains, the best they can offer is extra inspiration once in a while--now, for instance. Cliff Richard's support on his liveliest tune since "Cleaning Windows" suggests that Christ the Redeemer is lending a hand, but on the first side Van prefers to find the divine in the blessed present--folk lyric, poem about birdwatching, song called "I'd Like To Write Another Song." Side two comes out more today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-Van's-life--that is, his own genre exercise. And for a side he gets away with it. A-

Enlightenment [Mercury, 1990]
Only a perverse motherfucker would choose such a title for an album whose title refrain goes "Don't know what it is." What's he trying to do, fake out the satori market? Also: orchestras, the names of r&b singers, a weird recitative about the radio, and other tried-and-trues, all executed with faith, hope, and charity. Inspirational Verse: "In my soul, in my soul, in my soul." B+

The Best of Van Morrison [Mercury, 1990]
You'd think he'd never plumbed the depths of Scientology and Madame George--he deserves his own coffee-table compilation, with alternate takes and bootlegged live covers boxed and indexed for your scholarly delectation. And rest assured you'll get one, to commemorate his inevitable election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But despite its upbeat market savvy, I'll bet on this spiritually enlightened hour and a quarter. For all its chronological leaps, it moves as one thing--the seven '80s cuts honor Moondance and Into the Music, including "Wonderful Remark," previously available only on a damn soundtrack. Lighten up. Listen up. A

Bang Masters [Epic, 1991]
New York 1967--hungry young Irishman spouts blues poetry in a roomful of session pros ("T.B. Sheets," "Brown Eyed Girl," "The Back Room") ***

Hymns to the Silence [Mercury, 1991]
The usual wealth of fertilizer spread over two shortish CDs, long on love songs and the aforementioned hymns--wish the rejected title Ordinary Life was more accurate. Maybe they renamed the thing so churls like me wouldn't ask why nobody 86'd a few hymns. Like all of his recent and no doubt future work, it's slower than necessary, even in an artist of Van's advanced years. And like so much of his recent and I expect future work, it's more affecting than you'd figure. True love, eh? The simple life, huh? The days before rock and roll, did you say? Sounds kind of good. B+

Too Long in Exile [Polydor, 1993]
You know, exile--like Joyce and Shaw and Wilde and, oh yeah, Alex Haley. All on account of those "Bigtime Operators" who bugged his phone back when he was green. Now getting on to grizzled, he seeks guidance from the kas of Doc Pomus and King Pleasure and "The Lonesome Road," an unutterably sad spiritual recast as an upbeat vibraphone feature. And especially, on three cuts, his old soulmate John Lee Hooker, who doesn't come close to sounding overexposed on Them's "Gloria" and Sonny Boy's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and something new by Van called "Wasted Years," about how the dumb stuff is behind them now. I don't know about Hook, but Van's just jiving--when he wanders "In the Forest," it's never a safe bet that he'll get out. A-

The Best of Van Morrison Volume Two [Polydor, 1993]
post-'84--the Great Ruminator ("Real Real Gone") *

A Night in San Francisco [Polydor, 1994]
having fun with Van, John Lee, Junior, 'Spoon, Shana (Morrison), and Georgie Fame on stage ("Jumping With Symphony Sid," "Good Morning Little School Girl") **

Days Like This [Polydor, 1995]
"I'm a songwriter, and my check's in the mail" ("Songwriter," "You Don't Know Me") *

The Healing Game [Polydor, 1997] Neither

The Philosopher's Stone [Polydor, 1998]
"Drumshanbo Hustle" Choice Cuts

Back on Top [Virgin, 1999] Neither

Down the Road [Universal, 2002]
"The Beauty of the Days Gone By" ("Georgia on My Mind," "Man Has to Struggle") **

Magic Time [Geffen/Exile/Polydor, 2005]
"Keep Mediocrity at Bay" Choice Cuts

Pay the Devil [Lost Highway, 2006]
"There Stands the Glass" Choice Cuts

See Also