Van Morrison book-ended his incredibly prolific and stylistically diverse 1968-1974 period with two of the most innovative and sublime albums in the pantheon of modern popular music.
Beginning with the improvised, acoustic jazz paean to childhood memory and the emotional vicissitudes of adolescence in “Astral Weeks”,
Morrison’s period of great aesthetic development and creativity led him in quick succession to the spiritual beauty of “Moondance”,
the joyousness and spontaneity of “His Band and the Street Choir”,
the charming valentine to peaceful domesticity in “Tupelo Honey”,
and then to the rich textures and transcendent emotions of the majestic “St.Dominic’s Preview”.
A misstep in the form of the somewhat less than inspired album “Hard Nose the Highway” was then followed by an outstanding double live album, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”,
before finally ending this period with the under-appreciated masterpiece, “Veedon Fleece”. This album displays some similarities to his touchstone “Astral Weeks” album, but in other ways it reaches a level of depth and scope both lyrically and musically beyond even that seminal work.
“Veedon Fleece” represents the pinnacle of Van Morrison’s artistic achievement and vision, in spite of its initial commercial failure. It marked a return to his place of birth, as well as to the elliptical, poetic sensibilities of the “Astral Weeks” album. It is an album born out of the anguish of his failed marriage to Janet Rigsbee, and is infused with the turmoil of mixed emotions caused by returning to Ireland after a self-imposed exile, attempting to reconnect to his ancestral and musical roots. It also reflects an artistic and musical evolution whose cohesiveness and sophistication surpasses the youthful exuberance and spontaneity of its famous predecessor, even as it perfectly compliments it.
To appreciate more deeply the merits of this classic album as a whole artistic work, one that I rate at the absolute apex of this or any other genre, one must perhaps begin by analyzing each of the songs individually, though hopefully not at the expense of appreciating its air of mystery and poetic sensibility.
The album begins with a languid mid-tempo track, “Fair Play”, featuring lilting piano lines with jazz inflections, meandering along through lyrics which speak of a relationship, with a vaguely discernible tinge of conflict or disagreement concerning where their journey might take them, especially where the couple should reside together in the future (Ireland or their former home in San Geronimo, California). The “architecture I’m taking in with my mind” refers both to the churches and old buildings in the town of Arklow, as well as the beautiful and statuesque woman walking alongside him through the streets of the township. He then proceeds to chide her for obstinacy and argumentativeness, of having “the mind (of a) child to carry on”, but then professes love for her sense of fun in the gentle mocking of “tit-for-tat” games which the couple play as they take in the sights and sounds around the town. In spite of the idyllic surroundings, and thoughts of “Poe, Oscar Wilde and Thoreau” filling his “mind with tales of mystery, and imagination”, he seems torn between the renewed stimulus to his artistic vision in an Ireland replete with history and natural beauty, and the feelings of comfort and the sense of belonging found in his adopted home in California. “I wish we could be dreamers, in this dream” sums up Morrison’s feelings of euphoria and peaceful tranquillity in his surroundings, and one senses he is at ease for the first time in some little while in the company of this woman, who stimulates him in conversation and in her attitude to life, while also attracting him both emotionally and physically.
Linden Arden is seemingly a mythical character of Morrison’s invention that he utilizes in the next song, “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”, as a symbolic narrative device. It highlights his fascination with the inherent contradictions found in the behaviour of his Irish brethren, while Morrison also perhaps refers obliquely to himself, with the Linden Arden character as somewhat of an alter ego or possibly merely a caricature of his perceived personal failings. The capacity of the Irish for hard drinking (“the morning sun and whiskey, ran like water in his veins”), brutal violence and even in the title character’s case in senseless murder, contrasts heavily with the creativity, compassion, tenderness, devotion to family and the religious faith with which the Irish are also imbued. Rather than a call to arms for patriotic rebellion, as W.B.Yeats’ famous and influential poem “Easter, 1916” (which this song echoes in both tone and context) suggested, Morrison instead prefers to reflect in this song on the consequences of centuries of rebellion and political upheaval on the national psyche, and the subsequent social toll it has taken upon Irishmen, who often take “the law into (their) own hands”. In so doing, they are often driven to living as “outlaws” and outcasts, and feeling fundamentally disconnected and to some extent emotionally detached from their friends, their loved ones and the broader society as a consequence.
This song segues directly into its companion piece, “Who Was That Masked Man”, through repetition of the last line of its predecessor, where “Someday it may get lonely, now he’s livin’, livin’ with a gun” becomes transformed into “Oh, ain’t it lonely, when you’re livin’ with a gun”. This emphasizes the shared theme of loneliness and paranoia one finds when living outside the fringes of social acceptance, apart from the mainstream milieu. This brilliant, unheralded song captures the artist’s feelings of disenchantment at the breakup of his marriage, his feelings of isolation as an exile returning belatedly to his homeland, as well as being a prisoner of his own public persona. The contrast between the 2nd stanza (“You just sit there like a butterfly, and you’re all encased in glass” suggests being trapped or imprisoned) and the 4th (“You just sit there like a butterfly, you’re well protected by the glass” suggests being in a sanctuary or refuge), for example, demonstrates his ambivalence and the dichotomy of emotion felt when viewing his life in the public eye, drawing parallels but also showing empathy to an anonymous listener’s circumstances. The whimsical tone of the last half of the song’s lyric, singing of playful ghosts and drawing idiosyncratic analogies (“You can hang suspended from a star, or wish on a toilet roll”), and even referencing the Lone Ranger beloved of his childhood memory in the title, suggests a playfulness, joie de vivre and wry humour that gives the song added resonance, balanced as it is with achingly beautiful yet delicate musical accompaniment, and Morrison’s brilliant falsetto voice expressing the full gamut of his emotions. The closing line reflects his ambivalence to his fellow man (and therefore echoes the sentiments expressed in the preceding song, thereby providing further thematic reinforcement), recognising quite correctly that “No matter what they tell you, there’s good and evil in everyone”.
Recalling the poetry of his fellow Irishman W.B.Yeats once again, Van Morrison’s evocative lyrics on the album’s next track, “Streets of Arklow”, depict the sensual and intellectual delights derived from wandering, “as the color of the day wore on”, through the streets of Arklow township. The author loses all sense of time as he wanders throughout the day into the night and “on to dawn”, his senses being enlivened to nature and to his own poetic vision, and his creative energy is restored. It becomes a spiritual journey of rejuvenation through returning to his Celtic roots, which has left both Morrison and his companion invigorated and viewing the world with renewed clarity. Morrison’s vocals are impassioned and emotive, surrounded by glorious sweeping violins and Jim Rothermel’s brilliant recorder flourishes, which swirl and prance around the abrasive staccato of Morrison’s insistent percussive guitar playing, and with the murmuring piano and bass lines bubbling along behind, simulating the sound of a river flowing in the background. The penultimate lines are repeated in an incantation to pastoral beauty, surrounded by an eerie vortex of violins that sound like the beating of the wings of angels, while the beautiful recorder lines ascend heavenward in a moment of complete transcendence in the song’s finale.
The centerpiece of the album is the remarkable 8 minute 48 second stream of consciousness meditation, “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River”. The song incorporates a driving and insistent rhythmical base as it meanders through dissertations on his lover’s childhood memories, Morrison’s personal influences and inspirations, his quest for knowledge and enlightenment, and the vagaries of his current relationship after the failure of his marriage. The title derives from the work of famed Gestalt therapist Barry Stevens, who was influential on Morrison at this time, and the central theme of the song revolves around his personal conflictedness and crisis of identity, a battle that would eventually lead him to a three-year hiatus from recording once this album was concluded. Morrison blends these insights into his troubled relationship and his inner turmoil with an ambitious musical arrangement utilizing propulsive acoustic guitar work, with swirling strings that rise and fall then wash in and recede like the tide. Alternating these violin accompaniments with Rothermel’s estimable flute and recorder, these elements weave around the rhythm and form an integral part of the overall cathartic emotional effect of the piece.
When Morrison opines that “it takes the child in you to know the woman, and you are one”, he is suggesting that he can only understand his girlfriend’s feelings by understanding how her formative years shaped her, but simultaneously he believes that she needs to recapture some of her child-like innocence and perspective to help her to gain greater insight into their relationship also. When he intones about “going as much with the river as not”, Morrison is chastising himself for his intransigence and contrariness, while perhaps also intimating that he and his mistress are often at odds with one another needlessly rather than striving for common ground. When he sings passionately of being “behind the sun”, he seems to be subtly hinting that he is struggling in his quest for enlightenment, eclipsed by a lack of comprehension of himself and more especially by the whole dynamic of the relationship in which he currently finds himself engaged.
Finally, this complex song references his chief inspiration and mentor in the poet William Blake (the Four “Eternals” include the god ‘Urizen’- the embodiment of reason pictured above- and refers to the complex mythology of Blake’s poetry and paintings), whom Morrison clearly sees as a visionary icon of creativity and poetic vision, while juxtaposing “the Sisters of Mercy” who represent the religious faith and belief that was instilled in him from his childhood growing up in Ireland. The theme of the song therefore seems to be Morrison searching for the means and the inspiration to meld his faith and his poetic vision to his physical being, to his persona as a musician of some renown, as well as to his relationships with his loved ones. He mentions “contemplating Baba” which surely refers to his openness to wider spirituality beyond his religious roots, while the elusive “Veedon Fleece” would appear to be a personal symbolic invention of Morrison’s, an idiosyncratic hybrid of the quests for Jason’s Golden Fleece and for the Holy Grail, which serves as an unattainable ideal of his own design and choosing, but which remains forever beyond his reach and ephemeral as illustrated by the song’s denouement, winding its way onward down its own path until finally fading off into the distance in hushed and whispered tones at the conclusion.
After such a complex and emotionally challenging song, the jaunty “Bulbs” changes pace dramatically and stands in marked thematic and stylistic contrast, in much the same way that “Astral Weeks” was linked at its fulcrum by “The Way Young Lovers Do”. Rather than the starry-eyed naivety and energetic jazz stylings of that track, “Bulbs” tempo and tone are set somewhat at odds with the lyric, which seems to indicate that his mistress is preparing to return back home to America, back to family and loved ones on the other side of the Atlantic. “She’s screaming through the alley way, I hear her lonely cry” suggests that an argument has ensued between them forcing her to flee in distress, but after her anger and overwrought emotion has subsided she has been left a lonely figure, sadly ”standing in the shadows” under the burning streetlights which have “all turn(ed) blue”. Perhaps the emotional strain of Morrison’s inner conflict has made his lover reconsider their relationship, but she has stopped short of leaving him because she still remains fond of him and perhaps holds onto the faint hope of rekindling their romance. It is quite noticeable that the tone of Morrison’s singing on this track begins somewhat tentatively and haltingly, but eventually the tempo of the lyric (and also its musical accompaniment) increases and his tone becomes more ebullient and effusive as the song progresses, perhaps reflecting his relief and joy at resolving their impasse, and thereby reconciling at least temporarily with his beloved.
This directly links thematically then to the following song, “Cul De Sac”, whose lyrics again show a duality of meaning and revolve around relationships. On the one hand, it shows Morrison imploring his lover to come back with him to their hideaway, reminding her of shared experiences at California’s Palomar Observatory, where he exaggerates in almost John Donne-like fashion that he has “travelled far, to the nearest star” just to be with her, so questioning why would she not “double back” to nestle once more in comfort and security with him. The secondary meaning is also implicit in the cul de sac metaphor, with a relationship that perhaps is now at a dead end, that doesn’t have anywhere further to go having reached its maximum potential, but that Morrison wants to see it through regardless and try to enjoy their romantic connection while he still can. Vocally, Morrison veers wildly between the soft and melodic tones which predominate initially, to variations of rapid-fire scatting and ever more joyous and rollicking grunting, growling, caterwauling and even howling in delight, all of which gives the song an unexpected edginess and idiosyncratic flavour that is truly memorable and somewhat remarkable in its visceral appeal.
“Comfort You” is by complete contrast a deceptively simple and straightforward love song, where Morrison pledges his devotion to his mistress, and promises to ameliorate her pain and support her when she is saddened by life’s travails. He encourages her to “just let your tears run wild, like when you were a child”, once again reiterating his belief that she is too restrained and needs to engage her childlike emotional core more openly. The incantation “I want to comfort you” is repeated four times with differing emphasis each time, with differences in implicit meaning apparent according to the subtle variations Morrison employs. The lilting and warm quality in Morrison’s voice, combined with elegant acoustic guitar embellishments make for a persuasive and soothingly soulful mood piece.
“Come Here My Love” is lyrical and beautiful, sung in honeyed and hushed tones, with spare and simple acoustic arrangement that allows Morrison’s impassioned vocal to predominate in splendid isolation. “This feeling has me spellbound” is Morrison’s awestruck response to the baffling torrent of emotions he is experiencing (“I’m mystified, oh, by this mood”), until he reaches his emotional epiphany by merging his feelings of love for his lover with the pervasive influence of the innate beauty of the natural world around him, by becoming “enraptured by the sights and sounds, in intrigue of nature’s beauty”. He talks of his relationship to her as a “storyline, in paragraphs laid down in sand”, and relates the joys found in sharing their quiet solitude, enjoying the luxuriant bounty of nature enveloping them, and spending their days “contemplating fields and leaves, and talking about nothing”. The delicate and refined sensitivity and restrained passion pervades the piece and resonates long after the last few slightly dissonant chords of the song have fallen silent, the harbingers of what is unfortunately to come.
The final stanza of the “Veedon Fleece” album, the wistful “Country Fair”, ends on a note of resignation and regret which bears striking similarity to “Slim Slow Slider” which closes the “Astral Weeks” album. This elegiac song serves a similar function to its counterpart, acting as a muted but evocative coda to conclude a brilliantly conceived and internally cohesive song cycle. “Country Fair” dwells on the recognition of the fleeting nature of relationships (“sand like time slipping through our hand”), of being “too young to really know” what they might be opening themselves up for emotionally, and ruefully of having “never thought that it would pass”. When recalling memories of laying “in the long green grass” and counting “pebbles in the sand” with his beloved, Morrison speaks metaphorically of how they “stood and watched the river flow”, as if to suggest that the couple are now consigned to be merely helpless bystanders, powerless to avert their fate in the face of the inevitability of the passage of time. The “cool night air” and “the sweet summertime” are now a distant memory as their relationship dwindles, as was perhaps inevitable from the hints of discontent and conflict that were readily apparent in the beginning of their journey, as conveyed in the opening song of the album, “Fair Play”. This compelling finale is accompanied by a doleful yet inspired recorder solo of great beauty which gives way to a cacophony of erratic and discordant notes at the end which leaves the listener in no doubt of the fate of the lovers being one of turmoil and emotional upheaval.
As can readily be seen therefore, Van Morrison is an eccentric and idiosyncratic artist whose musical ambition and perceptual awareness is somewhat unique in modern popular music. Even though it may seem to some eyes, in light of the above analysis, that Morrison could potentially tend toward the pretentious or contrived, I suspect that his poetic sensibilities are more intuitive and instinctive rather than preconceived, and with that in mind his artistic choices on the “Veedon Fleece” album are uniformly on point. This landmark album remains an impressionistic masterpiece of splendid cohesiveness and sophistication, with subtle variations in mood, theme and execution which comprise an immersive and satisfying listening experience that succeeds on multiple levels in ways very few other albums can hope to match. It is therefore deserving of a far wider audience than it has gleaned thus far, even surprisingly amongst those otherwise quite familiar with Morrison’s music, being an album which, in the opinion of this reviewer, achieves a level of artistry beyond reproach and of the highest possible calibre.
In response to Carol Guida’s comments below, it would be more accurate to refer to her as Van Morrison’s fiancée at that time, rather than as a “girlfriend” or “mistress”.
Furthermore, I would like to add that I am not suggesting that the narrative thread of this album necessarily reflects a realistic depiction of his relationship with Ms. Guida at that time. I believe it merely serves as a starting point for Van Morrison to tell a fictional story, much as a novelist might take characters they know in their own personal lives and then twist certain aspects of their character or particular events to be woven into a storyline that suits the themes they are trying to communicate.
I believe that the lyrics of this album clearly speaks of the emotional vicissitudes of an ultimately doomed relationship. In spite of this implicit meaning within the album’s narrative, I would like to stress that this does not mean that this theme is in any way a reflection upon Morrison’s feelings toward his fiancée (Carol Guida) at that particular time.
I have apologised to Ms.Guida in the comments below the article if that was the implication she believed I was making. I can certainly understand her thinking this based on what I have written above, and I have therefore sought to correct this impression in this footnote, while keeping largely to the original wording of my review.