Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Van Morrison 17: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

When nobody was looking, Van released one of the best albums of his career. Of course, with a title like No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, he was bound to confound, and those who stayed away missed out on something special.
Somebody pointed out that it’s a song cycle like Astral Weeks; although there are several references to that album, so say it’s a similar cycle is stretching it. He does begin with a statement in “Got To Go Back”; only seconds in we hear one of his patented “oh yeah” utterances, followed by memories of Orangefield, listening to Ray Charles. The words are an evocation of longing that anyone can understand, and it’s a wonderful way to start. “Oh The Warm Feeling” is simple and quick, with the soprano sax darting all over, a subtle love song. With another seemingly disconnected introduction, “Foreign Window” is a lovely, lengthy observation full of allegory and suggestion, building just right through the fade. The feeling of wonder is distracted by the rant about “copycats” that begins “A Town Called Paradise”, a musical reworking of “Astral Weeks” that luckily switches to another plea to get back to nature and simplicity. That mythic place is best described by “In The Garden”. “The fields are always wet with rain,” he says, as they should be, and he sings to an unnamed figure who could be a lover who showed him a better life via Christ. But even that isn’t meant to be definite, as he states the album title: “No guru, no method, no teacher/Just you and I in nature.” That credo is repeated with varying intensity before a wonderful change of tempo, and the fade.
Having lulled us into a pleasant dreamland, “Tir Na Nog” continues the gentle ride, rich with such familiar imagery as golden autumn days, gardens wet with rain, chariots of fire and Jerusalem. Mythology plays a similar role in “Here Comes The Knight”, its title proving that Van actually has a sense of humor (and history). He never sings the title itself, but musically the verse recalls “Crazy Love” and “Tupelo Honey”, and the choruses revive the theme from “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1” via “Stepping Out Queen”. While he insists that “this love will surely last forever”, “Thanks For The Information” arrives to dispute that. With a great riff over simple chords that, surprisingly, no one else had found before, Van bemoans the “obstacles” keeping him from achieving happiness. (One mystery yet to be solved by the Internet: at the start of the third verse he spits something to the effect of “subliminal dummy tech or MTV”, yet the official lyrics and every transcription site substitute something else.) After all that, “One Irish Rover” provides another lullaby setting up “Ivory Tower”. Starting like a great lost Dire Straits song, the intro is merely a decoy for another cry of self-pity, yet a catchy one that follows the chorus out the door and down the street.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is a gem of an album, good for driving on rainy days, and home in the evenings, and even to fall asleep to, and that’s meant in a good way. It has a lovely sheen, and despite the somewhat incongruous ending, it better displays how a sense of wonder really feels. A very special album indeed.

Van Morrison No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1986, plus 2 extra tracks

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