Hypnotic Van true soul man
Van Morrison is no Hugh Grant in the looks department. Add in the fact that he appears unfortunately morose, like a Belfast butcher chewing a wasp, and you wouldn't expect him on the surface to be capable of such soulful feats of wonder with his music. His idiosyncratic vocal style is of a quality and magic, as critic Greil Marcus once claimed, that "no white man sings like": It's equal parts Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, and even James Carr perhaps.
When Van performs, he no longer seems like the largely impenetrable recluse who hides away from the attention of the public, who may be unable to tolerate human society. He seems transcended by the music he sings – it is like the words are coming through him, like some of the Joycean stream-of-consciousness raps about nature and higher beings that he is so fond of.
His 1970 Moondance album – while not being as good as his 1968 masterpiece Astral Weeks – is full of such soliloquies about nature and mysticism. Nick Butler, in his review of the album, stated, perhaps a touch over-excitedly, but not inaccurately: "This is Van Morrison's 6th Symphony; like Beethoven's equivalent, it's fixated on the power of nature, but rather than merely sitting in awe, it finds spirituality and redemption in the most basic of things. The pinnacle of Van The Man's career, and maybe, of non-American soul, in general."
Whatever about Beethoven and his symphonies, Moondance is baroque psychedelic jazz-soul – hypnotic, complex, dreamy.
On And It Stoned Me, Van rhapsodises about his youth. "Oh, the water, let it run all over me ..." he sings. "And it stoned me/To my soul/Stoned me just like jelly roll."
On Caravan, he goes off on one as Van has done so often for the past 40 years, singing: "Turn up your radio/And let me/Hear the song/Turn on your electric light/So we can get down/To what is really wrong."
Recorded when he and Janet Planet (his wife, who was pregnant at the time with daughter Shania) lived up in the mountains near Woodstock, Moondance brims over with reveries. Into The Mystic and Crazy are two of the finest soul songs ever written about love by anyone.
This month, Warner Bros is releasing a Deluxe Edition, with a newly remastered version of the original album plus three discs of previously unreleased music from the sessions (eight different takes of Caravan, anyone? Plus an out-take of Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out, among many others). Devotees will also get a Blu-ray Audio disc, and a booklet with liner notes from Alan Light and original engineer Elliot Scheiner.
At his best, as he is here on Moondance and of course Astral Weeks, Van's music is a kind of secular communion between performer and listener. To say he is one of the greats of music in the past 50 years is like saying Picasso could paint a bit. Without his influence, Bono, or Kevin Rowland, or Mike Scott, or even Dylan, wouldn't have been as good, perhaps.