Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
Sense of Wonder (1984)
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Poetic Champions Compose (1987)
Irish Heartbeat (1988)
The Best of Van Morrison (1990)
Time has a way of rediscovering Van Morrison. As the leader of the group Them, he wrote one of the all-time anthems of rock and roll in “Gloria.” He’s a staple of “classic rock” radio, with songs such as “Domino,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” and “Wild Night,” and it’s for these such accomplishments that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. But beyond the hits lies the true Morrison — passionate, searching, in love with beauty, and ultimately, love itself. It is this artist that is captured on the six albums re-released by Polydor in 1998.
With the release of Live from the Grand Opera House and Sense of Wonder in 1984, Morrison returned to the public eye after lying low for the latter part of the 70’s and early 80’s. By this point, his music, once a forceful mix of jazz and horn-based R&B, slowed to a more sedate, expansive pace on songs such as “Queen of the Slipstream” and “Cleaning Windows.” On the live disc, his voice seems to fight for recognition among the background singers and soprano saxophone (a problem that plagues all of these releases, sadly), but when it soars, as on “Full Force Gale” or “Queen,” it chills you, drags you along to the mystical heart of his soul — the place Morrison, a reclusive, mysterious man, only shows in his music.
These releases sound of a set — with the exception of Irish Heartbeat, a collection of Irish tunes performed with the Chieftains, and Best of, you can look at these records as one long stream of thought. The best of them, 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose, is musically relaxed but extremely emotional music; with material such as “The Mystery,” “I Forgot That Love Existed,” and “Someone Like You,” it is almost as if Morrison is singing to one person, and it’s only by accident that we get to listen in. He is in love with beauty, be it that of a woman (“Queen of the Slipstream’s” “My special rose”), or poetry (“Tore down Ala Rimbaud” on 1984’s Sense of Wonder or “Rave on John Donne” on Live), or just love itself. All of the music here can be looked at as love songs — you get the feeling that Van Morrison sees everything as relating to love, either on a spiritual (“Did Ye Get Healed” from Best of) or personal level. “Have I Told You Lately,” which is hands down one of the most beautiful odes ever penned, is wonderful simply because you don’t know if he is singing to a woman, or God. I don’t believe to him there exists much difference.
This is not to say that among the hours of music presented here there aren’t some clinkers — in fact, the entire No Guru album sounds half-hearted, resorting to vague lyrics set amid noodling “new age” music, but when he’s on, he truly is “Van the Man.” As a start, pick up the Best Of…, if only because it is the only place you can find the Robbie Robertson-produced “Wonderful Remark,” from the King of Comedy soundtrack. When Morrison sings “It was a wonderful remark/I had my eyes closed in the dark” you marvel at the poetry of it all — backed up by a New Orleans stew of romping horns. This compilation, arranged by Morrison, is a good introduction to his art. It is ordered in a such a way that by the time the disc ends with “Dweller on the Threshold,” you have experienced the many styles he has presented himself by, and you are ready to move into the deeper, less pop-oriented work of the 1980’s.
Time rediscovers Morrison every few years — seemingly not by much action on his part. He gives few interviews, performs live in bursts and starts, as with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell this summer, and he releases music when and if he feels like it. But when he does, it’s with an artist’s touch and a poet’s ear.