Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Van Morrison 23: Hymns To The Silence

The key to a successful double album (which, until CDs took over, meant a two-record set of four sides) is that it maintains cohesiveness over its length, whether by a unifying concept or story (i.e. Quadrophenia), breadth of musical styles that avoid repetition (i.e. the White Album) or just plain terrific songs, one after another (i.e. Blonde On Blonde). Whenever a double album is said to be flawed, and that happens a lot, you can usually bet that the follow-up statement will detail how a single-disc distillation would have made it exponentially superior.
The PR on Hymns To The Silence was that Van Morrison had been too prolific for his record company to keep up with his output, even at the rate of an album a year. By 1991 he had two albums ready; hence this double CD designed to bring everything current. (Which didn’t explain why his next studio album didn’t arrive for another 21 months.) It’s not a concept album — unless the evil music industry, childhood in Belfast and contemplating silence are all connected, making most of his later work conceptual — and it’s not chock full of classic songs. That leaves just its musical variety, which it does have, but not enough to sustain 95 minutes.
Most of the first half is the borderline smooth jazz that worked on Avalon Sunset and, to a lesser extent, Enlightenment. “Professional Jealousy” is a little vague, but that can’t be said for “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore” or “Why Must I Always Explain”. In comparison, his yearning for “Ordinary Life” (the title track at one point) comes off thin; if he hates his job so much, why doesn’t he go back to cleaning windows? He’ll certainly never find “Some Peace Of Mind” with Candy Dulfer’s sexy sax around. While one song tries to send a message a la “Fool On The Hill”, referring to the subject as “Village Idiot” is about as gentle as calling him a retard. “Carrying A Torch” sets up some candidates for inclusion on rom-com soundtracks, of which “Quality Street”, written with Dr. John, is the high mark. (And as romantic as “Green Mansions” seems, all our mind’s eye sees is an asylum.)
There are some decent jump blues (“So Complicated”, “All Saints Day”) a cover of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” dressed up with Celtic touches from the Chieftains, and a couple of traditional hymns. “Be Thou My Vision” is pretty straight, but could use more Chieftains, but “See Me Though Part II” is fascinating juxtaposition of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” with an extended monologue/rant picking up where “In The Days Before Rock & Roll” left off. Two other spoken pieces are equally compelling: the dreamy “On Hynford Street”, and the Hearts of Space-based “Pagan Streams”.
Amazingly, two of the better tracks both top nine minutes while staying within two chords. “Take Me Back” features him matching his vocal with his electric, and keeping up even when he’s singing through the harmonica stuffed in his mouth. The title track presents an equally satisfying performance, with sympathetic dynamics and melody.
Good Lord, but this is a long album. By our math there is a half-hour of excellent music, which could have been the basis of an excellent single disc. While a .300 average is good in baseball, that doesn’t fly at a $29.98 list price, even if the set does finish a lot better than it starts. Van had gained the clout to do whatever he wanted to, with enough critics hailing his every utterance as part of his storytelling legacy. But they don’t have to shell out thirty bucks for their copies, and Hymns To The Silence challenges the average listener to try and keep up with him. And if they decided to hop off the ride, well, that’s the tragedy of being a performer, isn’t it?

Van Morrison Hymns To The Silence (1991)—2


  1. Hi - great blog! Look forward to every review as it comes out.

    But.......wow. Hymns to the Silence? 2 stars? I'm probably one of the minority that holds Van's output from Into The Music through The Healing Game as one of the most impressive streaks of extremely high quality art by a "pop" musician - almost 20 years, something like 20 albums, not a loser in the bunch.

    Absolutely love Hymns. Great mood, atmosphere, and such a full range of styles from Van. Love that he stretches out on the 10 minute songs. "Carrying a Torch" is great.

    Have never even thought about its length. Its funny to me that some complain when an album is too short or doesnt fill out a full CD, and yet audiences clamor for outtakes, unreleased tracks, bootlegs and "lost classic albums" that could have been so much better if the artist had included this track or that. Then when you come across a double album where the artist wanted to put out more music and was willing to put aside sales in favor of it, its inevitable compared to blonde on blonde, quadrophenia, etc and is "bloated".

    Anyway, none of this is all to disrespect the reviewer - I am a fan of this blog and generally find the writing and viewpoints very interesting even if not always matching my own. Keep it up - please!

  2. That's why we're here -- this blog is designed for dialogue, and I always like hearing how an album that I don't "get" means a lot to somebody else. (Then again, check out some of the comments on my less-tha-stellar Dylan reviews...)

    This was about the point in Van where I got left behind, but I'm looking forward to finding some buried treasure among the '90s stuff.

    Thanks for reading! I'll keep writing!