The first disc is chock full of worthy leftovers from his best early-‘70s work, starting with the simple blues of “Really Don’t Know” and “Ordinary People”. But then we have the original recording of “Wonderful Remark”, ten years before the recording that would be released first, and about half the speed, running eight minutes with a prominent flute and backing vocals from Ronnie Montrose. It kicks off an album’s worth of tracks that are just as good as (if not better than) what came out on Hard Nose The Highway. “Not Supposed To Break Down” and “Contemplation Rose” are just plain lovely, “Laughing In The Wind” a spirited duet with Jackie DeShannon, and “Lover’s Prayer” simple but catchy, despite the Johnny Carson reference. Not easily deciphered is “Madame Joy”, a much more carefree tune than its cousin on Astral Weeks. “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Tomorrow” is back to the blues, with a moment of the harmonica getting intentionally stuck in his mouth. “Try For Sleep” and “Twilight Zone” utilize the falsetto that stuck out like a sore thumb on Veedon Fleece, the latter even showing some humor by the end. Then there’s “Drumshambo Hustle”, a nasty tale about The Business, always lurching toward the hilarious couplet: “You were puking up your guts/When you read the contract you just signed.” “Foggy Mountain Top” and “There There Child” would have been familiar from his shows of the period, so it’s interesting to finally hear how they might have made it to albums had he so chosen. “Naked In The Jungle” provides a transition of sorts, its heavy percussion and insistent delivery way different from the rest of the disc.
The second disc is as spotty as the later albums that spawned from these sessions, though there are some nice moments here and there. We can almost imagine how his abandoned 1975 album might have sounded. Leading off the disc is a gem from this period that got its first airing in an inferior later take. The original “The Street Only Knew Your Name” is one of the best recordings in his catalog, the entire track falling together perfectly. Unremarkable versions of “John Henry” and “Western Plain”, both blues standards, suggest he was more interested in other music than his own, though “Joyous Sound” and “Flamingos Fly” appear in more palatable arrangements than first released. “I Have Finally Come To Realize” oozes with ‘70s smoothness, wisely left aside. We get a fascinating extension of “Stepping Out Queen” from after its fade on Into The Music, but a less exciting “Bright Side Of The Road”. “Street Theory” and “Real Real Gone” provide more upbeat insight into the Common One sessions; again, the released version of the latter is the keeper. By now we’re in the ‘80s, and it’s rough going. “Showbusiness” is another rant about one of his obsessions, but meanders for nine minutes; “For Mr. Thomas” is a duet with himself on a cover of a Robin Williamson song. “Crazy Jane On God” is the Yeats poem notoriously deleted at the last minute from A Sense Of Wonder, while “Song Of Being A Child” is a poem made famous by the film Wings Of Desire; Van’s version is delivered in a rapid-fire call-and-response with singer June Boyce. Finally, while “High Spirits” is a collaboration with the Chieftains, it does not approach even the lesser moments of Irish Heartbeat.
The Philosopher’s Stone is recommended for the first disc alone, and while the second doesn’t reach those heights, there’s nothing really terrible there. As a pricey double-disc, it should be approached on those terms. Tellingly, while the inner liner labels it “Unreleased Tapes Volume One”, there has been no sequel following this template.
Van Morrison The Philosopher’s Stone (1998)—3½