If the liner notes are to be believed, it was recorded over a nine-day period, suggesting that Van felt these particular songs were keepers, rather than pulling in tracks from other sessions. “Haunts Of Ancient Peace” is a promising start, a sinuous groove with understated horns. At seven minutes, it’s a nice place to be. That’s not the immediate response incurred by “Summertime In England”, a gallop over the same two chords through a couple of different tempos. Much of the vocal is mushmouthed, and the few lyrics that cut through cover the usual territories: William Blake, T.S. Eliot, a laundry list of poets, Avalon, and so forth, eventually fixating on the album title. As rambling as it is, collaborator Jeff Labes did construct a very precise string arrangement, but there’s just no tension or payoff. “Satisfied” is another two-chord meander, with more of an R&B feel and shouted response vocals.
“Wild Honey” is a lushly arranged ballad that brings to mind Ray Charles, though it does slow down an already lugubrious program. As if that song was too complicated, “Spirit” is reduced to two chords, while Van insists that “spirit don’t ever die”. Not at this rate it won’t. “When Heart Is Open” returns to the meditation of the opening song, with a couple of minutes’ worth of mantra-like moaning over the opening trumpet, bringing to mind the Miles Davis album In A Silent Way. (Seeing as trumpeter Mark Isham was a Miles disciple, this isn’t such a stretch.) As a jazz exploration it’s not bad, simply because it’s not irritating, but he spends a lot of the second half of the track asking for his boots and coat so he can walk in the woods, where he plans to make the most of his beloved changing “like a flower opening”. Whether that line actually worked is not clear.
While Common One tries to offer the full spectrum of Van’s styles to date, it instead seems very disjointed and unfocused. His determination to do things his way is to be commended, but it doesn’t compel one to play the album again.
Van Morrison Common One (1980)—2
2008 CD reissue: same as 1980, plus 2 extra tracks