Monday, December 10, 2012

Van Morrison 11: Into The Music

It took a few false starts, but Van managed to close the decade with a masterpiece. Like all his greats, Into The Music takes a while to get into. And like all his greats, it’s full of romance and religion beneath the surface. It’s true Caledonia soul, mixing Irish folk touches with R&B, along with such instruments as harmonica, banjo and Dobro, Appalachian influences that reflect just how huge American country-western is in Ireland. Some prominent musicians appear in support: Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, Pee Wee Ellis from the James Brown band, and a couple of refugees from ECM Records and John McLaughlin. None seem extraneous. Even the ladies’ voices don’t get in the way.
He’s not really breaking any new ground at first listen. “Bright Side Of The Road” (which directly namechecks its relation to the modern R&B classic “Dark End Of The Street”) is a snappy starter, with the equally upbeat “Full Force Gale” following right along in an overt statement of thanksgiving. “Stepping Out Queen” is in the same punchy vein, with the addition of a violin sawing away in a premonition of several Waterboys albums a decade down the road. (The song seems to go somewhere else just before the fade, and one day it would be revealed that a second half of equal length was lopped off, which included a musical theme that would be used as both an instrumental and a melody within a few albums.) “Troubadours” removes us from the present, suitably, right up through the sharply constructed instrumental section, spotlighting pennywhistle, trumpet and sax in that order (though the sax does drip of Adult Contemporary). “Rolling Hills” goes deep into English folk country, the pounding drums notwithstanding, the side ends with the soulful goodtime “You Make Me Feel So Free”, which is a vast improvement on the framework of James Taylor’s recent hit “Your Smiling Face”.
Solid as side one is, the flip is a trip to the stratosphere and back. “Angeliou” starts out folky, repeating its lilting intro several times. For a full minute the only lyrics are the title, repeated melodically until pushing the song through rising changes under a meditation about “the month of May in the city of Paris”. His memories begin to wander, and his reverie becomes mostly spoken in hushed tones, just nudging the piece along. There’s a return to the title refrain, and more hints at something tantalizing that he’s not quite telling us. The song fades, but each piece that follows seems to lend some illumination. “And The Healing Has Begun” begins with the same progression as “Madame George”, and indeed takes us back to his hometown. Here is the genesis of the “yeah” asides that would permeate the ‘80s. Once he stops the band for a monologue it’s clear just what kind of healing he’s talking about, after a gig while the dirty old Van tries to get some. Our eavesdropping on his seduction technique is blocked by another fade, and diverted by a surprising cover. “It’s All In The Game” is a dramatic interpretation of the oldie, slowing down the tempo to a gentle 12/8 and ignoring the melody that came first. As he studies on the lyrics, he quiets the band and pulls the song into a glorious expression of ecstasy brought on by a simple love song, in a section of his own called “You Know What They’re Writing About”. (His repeated demand to “meet [him] down by the pylons” is another reference to his teenage days.)
Into The Music was easily his best album since the early ‘70s. It exudes joy and confidence without being pushy, and at fifty minutes, is a good length, too. Above all, it was a reminder of what made him such a legend in the first place.

Van Morrison Into The Music (1979)—5
2008 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 2 extra tracks

1 comment:

  1. "the flip is a trip to the stratosphere and back"...great line.
    A masterpiece for nailed the review.