Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Van Morrison Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Enlightenment (1990, Polydor)

B +

As great though much of Van Morrison’s late-‘80s material was, it also could get very overly pensive at times, and the discs were often bereft of up-tempo material, to the extent that it was sometimes hard to believe you were listening to the same man who had brought us such heated workouts as “Domino” or, dating even further back to his pre-solo days, Them’s “Gloria.” One senses that Van realized he needed to liven up his image a bit, because he begins this album on a rousing note with the brass-heavy stomp of “Real Real Gone,” easily the most animated up-tempo song he’s cut in well over a decade, while the next track, the title track, isn’t nearly as heated but finds Van in just as lighthearted a mood, and it’s interesting to note the contrast between the previous album’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” and Van’s new declaration that “Still I’m suffering, but that’s my problem / Enlightenment - don’t know what it is.” The album’s just a tad less compelling than Poetic Champions Compose or Avalon Sunset as far as the songwriting goes, but it sounds great throughout, both in terms of the engineering and the arrangements, particularly the lush orchestrations that accompany “See Me Through,” and the disc closes on a strong note with such retro-flavored cuts as the R&B stroll of “Start All Over Again” and the doo-wop-tinged “Memories.”

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Hymns to the Silence (1991, Polydor)

C +

Van’s first double-disc studio outing is both much too long and too schizophrenic for its own good and ends up bringing a temporary halt to the artistic comeback begun with Poetic Champions Compose four years earlier. The disc starts off on an intriguing note with the near-sophisti-pop-like sound of “Professional Jealousy” and the gently rippling groove of “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore,” but from there, it starts to go adrift quite a bit with the Ray Charles-like blues of “Ordinary Life,” the jazzy “So Complicated” and “All Saints Day,” the pure gospel influences of “By His Face,” “See Me Through, Pt. 2,” and “Be Thou My Vision” (the latter two being covers of bona fide traditional hymns), the heavily Celtic “Why Must I Always Explain,” the spoken monologue “On Hyndford Street,” and a cover of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Simply put, there’s just too many styles here, and they don’t sit well alongside each other – while Van’s versatility is truly apparent here, there’s not a whole lot here to satiate fans of any particular one of Van’s many facets, and his pop fans in particular are likely to walk away disappointed with the large number of gospel and blues genre exercises that comprise most of the album’s second and third sides. It’s not until you get halfway through the second disc that it really starts to sound like a coherent whole again, and quality songs like “Carrying a Torch,” the Dr. John co-write “Quality Street,” and the lovely ballad “It Must Be You” help compensate for the glut of filler that preceded it, even if many listeners may have given up on the album by this point. It’s certainly a less commercial album than any of the previous three discs, and it also lacks the cohesiveness of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, ultimately making it his weakest outing since A Sense of Wonder.

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Too Long in Exile (1993, Polydor)

B +

Morrison’s yet to revert back to the more pop-oriented stylings of Enlightenment, but he’s wisely opted on this follow-up to ­Hymns to the Silence to at least bring some more stylistic focus to the table this time around, devoting the entirety of this surprisingly raw disc to jazz and blues to appealing results. The album kicks off with a killer title cut that features both smooth-jazz newcomer Candy Dulfer (best known for her instrumental crossover hit with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, “Lily Was Here”) and the Dream Academy’s Kate St. John on saxophone, Dulfer nearly stealing the show with her impressive solos. The doo-wop-influenced “Ball & Chain” and the lovely “Before the World Was Made” are nearly just as strong, and Van also delivers first-rate covers of Eddie Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood for Love,” Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue,” and Gene Austin’s “The Lonesome Road.” Much was made by critics over the two guest appearances by blues legend John Lee Hooker, but while the two men generate much energy and excitement together, the decision to have the two men re-cut Morrison’s Them-era classic “Gloria” just seems a bit redundant and unnecessary and feels a bit like padding. The disc lags a bit in the middle (and “‘Til We Get the Healing Done” goes on for much too long), but it recovers nicely in its back third, and what few flaws the album has are largely compensated for by the sheer breeziness that pervades the album throughout. Not only does Morrison sound more at ease than he has in several years, but his passion for the music is both obvious and contagious. Like Irish Heartbeat, this is definitely not a fitting disc to begin your Van Morrison collection with, but of the many genre exercises he’s recorded and released between pop albums, this is one of his more appealing.

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Days Like This (1995, Polydor)

C +

Morrison largely returns to the pop territory of Enlightenment here, but his heart really doesn’t seem to be in it – this in spite of the fact that his daughter Shana even joins him here as his duet partner on two cuts (covers of the pop standards “You Don’t Know Me” – made most famous by Ray Charles – and “I’ll Never Be Free”) – and cuts like “Songwriter” and “Underlying Depression” in particular seem to paint the picture of a veteran who’s just tired and bored with his career at this point. He’s not entirely on autopilot, as many critics are fond of saying about this album – to the contrary, the near-nine-minute long “Ancient Highway” feels nearly as adventurous as anything from Common One – but the songwriting is much more inconsistent here than it was on Enlightenment. There are a few exceptions, though: the up-tempo opener “Perfect Fit” is quite fun, and the title cut definitely ranks among Van’s best ‘90s songs. It’s at least more concise and focused a disc than Hymns to the Silence, but it’s no less spotty an outing, resulting in an album that’s neither terrible nor great but simply passable.

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How Long Has This Been Going On (1995, Verve)

C +

This quickly-released follow-up to Days Like This isn’t so much a proper Van Morrison album but rather a full-length collaboration (recorded live-in-the-studio at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club without an audience)
with one of his heroes, British R&B/jazz singer/organist Georgie Fame – a big star in the U.K. during the ‘60s but little-known to American audiences, having reached the Top 40 on just two occasions, first with the bossa-nova stylings of “Yeh Yeh” (one of the most infectious and criminally underrated 45s of the mid-‘60s) and later with “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.” The pairing seems both inspired and natural, and you can tell the two men clearly enjoyed working together, but two things ultimately hinder the album’s appeal; for one, it can’t help but feel a bit self-indulgent on the part of Morrison (undeniably talented though Fame is, “an album of duets with Georgie Fame” was not likely very high up on the wish list of most Morrison fans, not in the least due to Fame’s lack of greater name recognition outside the U.K.), and for another, there are just four originals here (all but one of which are re-recordings of older Morrison songs like “Moondance” and Saint Dominic’s Preview’s “I Will Be There”), the bulk of the album consisting of covers of standards like “That’s Life” (made most famous by Frank Sinatra), “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” and “Blues in the Night.” It’s a perfectly pleasant album, but it’s also one that ultimately feels inessential and simply a way for Morrison to bide time until he had written some new material.

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Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison (1996, Verve)

C

Like How Long Has This Been Going On before it, this isn’t technically a Van Morrison solo disc. A salute to the music of Mose Allison, a jazz/blues pianist perhaps best known to American audiences for having written “Young Man Blues,” which would become a concert staple for The Who and be included on their seminal Live at Leeds album, this record is only a Van Morrison record in part, the remaining tracks being sung by Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran, or Mose Allison himself. Like its predecessor, it’s obvious how much love and inspiration went into this disc, but it ultimately still feels too insular, and Morrison buffs likely had to be wondering at this point when – if ever – Van was going to get back to cutting discs – and more pop-friendly ones – comparable to Avalon Sunset or Enlightenment.    

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The Healing Game (1997, Polydor)

B +

Easily his most pop-oriented affair since Days Like This, The Healing Game was derided by some critics, mainly over what was perceived as over-presence by Georgie Fame, who both plays organ throughout and often sings alongside Morrison in a call-and-response fashion that some found irritating. But The Healing Game is arguably more appealing than any Morrison album since Too Long in Exile and for several reasons. For starters, it’s the sound of Morrison shaking off his more self-indulgent tendencies and getting back to making music that sounds like the Van Morrison of old; simply put, he hasn’t made music quite this soulful – or as infectious or brass-heavy, for that matter – in years. (Even when the lyrics delve into more insular territory, as on “This Weight,” Morrison is smart enough to weld them to solid melodic hooks.) It also bests his last proper pop album, Days Like This, by containing a superior set of songs, highlighted by the easygoing groove of “Rough God Was Riding,” the sultry “Fire in the Belly,” the driving toe-tapper “Burning Gound,” the raw “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (which could nearly pass for an outtake from his early-‘70s work), and, best of all, the gospel-infused, album-closing title cut, which boasts a killer horn arrangement and some lively vamping from Morrison and Fame both during the song’s extended fade. Too Long in Exile may still be ever-so-slightly superior, but as far as Morrison’s more pop-oriented discs go, this is arguably his best since Enlightenment.

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Back on Top (1999, Polydor)

A –

Even better than The Healing Game and arguably his best studio outing since Avalon Sunset, the worst that can be said about this album is that might be just a tad too organ-drenched for its own good, causing the songs to often sound a bit too alike. But the production is appealingly a bit rawer here than it was on The Healing Game, giving the album a slightly warmer feel, and the songs are just as strong this time as well. The harmonica-heavy title cut is the most toe-tapping single Van has cut since “Real Real Gone,” while the ‘50s-flavored R&B/soul of “Precious Time” is just as infectious and boasts just as appealing a lazy groove. Even the longest cuts here manage to hold your attention with their clever instrumental touches; the piano and R&B guitar licks of “Philosopher’s Stone” go surprisingly well together, for instance, while the fabulous closer “Golden Autumn Day” serves as an effective and masterful fusion of all the album’s styles, even placing harmonica and saxophone solos back-to-back against a sweeping orchestral backing and managing to not only make it feel like a natural combination but producing it in a way that makes it still sound more raw than overblown. Of all his ‘90s albums, this is arguably the most essential in the bunch.

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You Win Again (2000, Virgin)

C

Whatever you may think of How Long This Been Going On, at least the pairing of Van Morrison with Georgie Fame actually made some sense from a stylistic standpoint. This, on the other hand, is as inexplicable a collaborative disc as Morrison has ever made, teaming him up for a full album of duets – most of them country and R&B covers like “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” “You Win Again,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)”; there’s only one Morrison original here (“No Way Pedro”) – with little-known American country artist Linda Gail Lewis, arguably better known for being the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis than for any music she’s made. [Even her lone Top Ten hit on the country charts in the U.S., “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” was a duet with her famous brother.] Like the Georgie Fame disc before it, it’s obvious a good time was had by all in making the record and that that music means a great deal to Morrison and Lewis both, but even in its best moments, you still can’t help but dwell on how utterly self-indulgent this album is – especially coming after Morrison’s best studio album in over a decade – and it ultimately makes the record a difficult listen.

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Down the Road (2002, Universal)

B

Although it can be a mildly unengaging listen for those easily bored by blues music, Down the Road is a much-welcome step back in the right direction after the self-indulgent country duets affair You Win Again. For starters, there’s just one cover this time around, and even that song, “Georgia on My Mind,” overly ubiquitous though it is, is performed so superbly that you can easily forgive the lack of imagination in its selection. Morrison’s originals here are quite good, be it the Ray Charles-like bop of “Meet Me in the Indian Summer,” the jazzy “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?”, the shuffle of “Hey Mr. DJ,” or the soulful lite-disco of “Man Has to Struggle,” and the album boasts a killer co-write between Morrison and British clarinet player Acker Bilk (best known in the U.S. for his 1962 chart-topping instrumental “Stranger on the Shore”) in the gorgeous “Evening Shadows.” It’s neither as pop-oriented nor quite as magical a disc as Back on Top, but this is actually arguably a much stronger disc than such ‘90s studio outings as Days Like This