Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

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6 thoughts on “Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

  1. rossjpalmer Post author

    Preferring Rubber Soul to Revolver’s a wee bit bonkers. Preferring Moondance to Astral Weeks on the other hand… Are you going to put the case for AW, then?

    Reply
  2. James McKean

    Well there are all sorts of issues here….

    Most of us become more conservative as we get older. A few weeks ago you wrote about the Throwing Muses. It was an interesting piece, as ever. But it didn’t particularly inspire me to give their music another listen. In fact I’ve just looked the piece up: ‘frantic’, ‘unsettling’, ‘fast and unrelenting’. It all sounds like hard work, frankly.

    I first heard Astral Weeks when I 16 or 17. I didn’t realise how strange a record it was at the time. I’d listened a lot to Wild Wood a few years previously, and it seemed of a similar vein in plenty of ways. It was only much more recently that I realised how harsh some of the singing is; how unusual some of the songs were; how odd the tracklisting is too.

    Things hit you harder at that age, you know. And I think we’re all more open to being hit hard too. Diving into people’s thoughts. People’s pain.

    I agree with you that Moondance is a rarity in being an extremely good record that was expressly out to win over a bigger audience by ‘sugarcoating’ the artist’s thang. I don’t agree though that ‘picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible’. In fact, I think its damned easy! Could anyone make a sensible case for anything other than Into The Mystic? I doubt it.

    Moondance is full of quite-to-very good songs. But few genuinely capital ‘G’ great ones. Probably only one, in fact (although I can imagine a plausible case being made for the title track). Astral Weeks, despite being a less song-y album (and having fewer songs on it), clearly has more: Sweet Thing and Madame George certainly. TWYLD almost certainly. I’d argue very strongly for Beside You, which has always been a personal favourite of mine. I could imagine people making cases for other tracks too (the title track, Ballerina…). In fact I know a very-well listened individual who counts Cyprus Avenue (for me the weakest cut) amongst their top 10 songs of all time.

    To me, Moondance is merely a very good record. Astral Weeks is a work of genius: displaying, as it does, ‘exceptional ability, creativity, and originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of an unprecedented leap of insight’ (borrowed from Wikipedia). They’re worlds apart.

    Reply
  3. rossjpalmer Post author

    I think plenty people would argue for Caravan as the record’s key moment and/best song. Or, as you mention, the title track. More thoughts soon (possibly in person).

    Reply
    1. rossjpalmer Post author

      I think that it’s easy to hear Moondance as the lesser work because it’s a lighter work. But I don’t think it’s at all shallower than AW. It’s an album all about spiritual transcendence through love, music and love of nature, and I hear as much creativity and originality and insight in it as I do in AW. It plays by different rules to AW (because its songs follow conventional verse/chorus structures and it concerns itself with hooks and concision) but I think it’s every bit as good at what it does as AW is at what it does.
      And as for Into the Mystic being the only ‘sensible’ pick for highlight, I can easily imagine someone arguing for the title track, Caravan, And it Stoned Me or (as you mentioned yesterday) Brand New Day (you were right, btw – it’s longer than Caravan by a few seconds: both are over 5 mins though!). Or Glad Tidings or These Dreams of You, frankly. Sure they’re light as air, but no music as joyful as those two songs can possibly be dismissed lightly, since joy is probably the hardest emotion to capture in music without seeming cheesy or forced.

      Reply

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