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