Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Van Morrison 23: Enlightenment

At, arguably, his highest profile in the better part of twenty years, one would think all Van had to do was release an album and the world would follow. Unfortunately, the record-buying public didn’t act they way they used to, so perfectly enjoyable albums were overlooked.
Enlightenment is not at all perfect, but it does fit with the mold Van had built throughout the ‘80s. The mix is warm and comfortable, typical of the sound he’d been honing all decade. “Real Real Gone” is a wonderful opener, all punchy brass, and fading on the R&B song quotes at the end; as it turns out, the song was ten years old at the time. The title track spends a lot of time admitting how he doesn’t know the definition of the word, but the music is hardly despairing. For “So Quiet In Here” he indulges in some of his method acting, feeling the words instead of just singing them. Even at six minutes, it manages to recall the better moments of such disparate albums as Astral Weeks and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. As long as he’s revisiting themes, “Avalon Of The Heart” doesn’t just recall the last album; he even talks of “the viaducts of my dreams” as mentioned on “Astral Weeks” while quoting the melody of “Beautiful Vision”. Luckily, the choir of voices is mixed discreetly alongside the orchestra. “See Me Through” provides another opportunity to wander, with his own harmonica tooting along in the background, a deft guitar solo, and whispered touchpoints that will be picked up again in the future.
So while side one is mostly strong, side two loses its way in spots. “Youth Of 1,000 Summers” (downgraded from “eternal summers” only three albums before) manages to mix gospel with a Latin feel. It’s very much a trifle, if heartfelt, but it does not prepare the listener for “In The Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Over a pleasant, toe-tapping two-chord backing, Irish poet Paul Durcan recites a memoir of listening to the radio in that pre-Elvis time period, with the pacing of Rich Hall imitating Paul Harvey on Saturday Night Live. Van joins in for the choruses, and extemporizes with sound effects all the way to the end. The rest of the side isn’t as interesting, however; “Start All Over Again” recycles the melody from “Country Fair” and “The Mystery”, but at least it has a good live feel. “She’s My Baby” is a fairly tepid love song, with a “can’t eat, can’t sleep” angle title to a baffling “egg on my face” reference. “Memories” is heralded by a wheezing accordion, or maybe it’s a harmonium. Whatever it is, the song spins and spins until the end without leaving much behind, going completely against the message of the song.
Enlightenment isn’t as overtly commercial as Avalon Sunset, so therefore it didn’t sell (mostly because most people were happy with the hits album). The good parts mentioned make it worth adding to the pile, if you’re so inclined.

Van Morrison Enlightenment (1990)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1990, plus 2 extra tracks

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