The opener, “Spanish Steps”, is absolutely stunning, even if you didn’t know it was him playing. Basically a lush slow jazz in a minor key, it’s very melodic, even through the sped-up section in the middle. “The Mystery” picks up that familiar melody from “Country Fair”, adding a swirling string arrangement for an Irish feel. Even better is “Queen Of The Slipstream”, whoever that is. Once again the strings threaten to take over the track, which probably kept it off radio, but it follows the tradition of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, and even gives the album its title. “I Forgot That Love Existed” is built around a bubbling bass line, with the synthesizers making the band sound larger than it is. That and a new arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” take up space, but the former is redeemed by, again, his sax.
“Celtic Excavation” begins side two with a vaguely Oriental melody, but soon follows into another lush instrumental, setting up “Someone Like You”, a song that launched a million rom-com soundtracks. “Alan Watts Blues” more than namechecks that modern philosopher, and is catchy enough to overcome the obscurity in the lyrics. Just as snappy and obscure is “Give Me My Rapture”. A little sax noodling leads into “Did Ye Get Healed”, soon slathered in a Bacharach-style arrangement with horns and ladies’ vocals. It twirls around into another well-placed sax solo, then quiets itself to the end where a woman with a distinct brogue asks the musical question of the title. Finally, “Allow Me” gives the spotlight to trumpet and piano to follow Van’s own theme.
Normally we’re not big fans of saxophones, but when it’s used well, as it is all over Poetic Champions Compose, it does serve to add color rather than ketchup. While it’s not as consistent as his previous album was wonderful, it’s still a nice, inoffensive album. And of course, the cover photo of the grumpiest man in the world is just plain priceless.
Van Morrison Poetic Champions Compose (1987)—3½