I realize all my previous writing on Van Morrison and Them has had a teleological focus – aiming for that moment when Morrison would change from an R&B/pop singer with occasional pretensions to an orchestral celtic folk genius. This is it. Yes he had written great material before – Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl – but this is a step above. Maybe not as pop songs, but as a single piece. As an album. It’s incredible and receives well deserved praise.
The title track rolls in, warm and pastoral. Looping across with Van’s lyrics as a centerpiece – the phrase “to be born again” mystical, but feeling down to earth with his occasionally casual delivery. Flutes and acoustic guitar surround in layers that just make this sound complete. It fades out slowly. Beside You is a good excuse to use the word plaintive as I’ll ever find. Van plays with tempo – slowing down and speeding up like a man whose world is collapsing. Then he builds into ecstatic repetition. It’s incredible. Then Sweet Thing changes the mode to something playful, joyful but matches it in it’s elegance and vibrancy. The relaxed, looping is cut through by Van’s voice booming out. It’s not just the performance, I once saw an ageing man from Belfast (not Van …) sing it in a pub with a blues band and it was still spellbinding. It’s a great song.
Cyprus Avenue is a long track – this album has four tracks over seven minutes – but seems to float by. Majestic comes to mind – it proceeds in a stately manner with lyrics that reminisce about teenage years (it’s a residential street in Belfast). It’s a weird dream-like blend of strings, flute, acoustic guitar with jazz thrown into the mix. There’s a more direct sense of nostalgia on The Way Young Lovers Do. The problem of listening on CD – I should flip the record before this track so it isn’t such a jolt after the impressionism of Cyprus Avenue. This is brash show tune jazz – it’s quite jarring, but possibly intentionally so: there’s a frantic side to the music that is far from the sweet romance of Sweet Thing.
A third epic Madame George calls back to Cyprus Avenue, perhaps at an older age, bringing to mind faded memories of a party lifestyle. There are references to places in Belfast, and a general sense of sadness – not intense like Beside You, but soft and compassionate. I have no idea what it’s about – some references to drag jump out – but I tend to just fall back into the beauty of the song. For a long time Ballerina was my least favourite track on here – there’s a plonky vibraphone riff and his vocals are all over the place, but for others that could be the enjoyment in it: he does show a fantastic range. Suddenly Slim Slow Slider brings everything to a leaden conclusion, a sad fragment of a piece about a dying girl (echoes of TB Sheets). Sliding guitar, fluttering flute and a bitter laugh from Van. It’s a perfect end to a perfect album.