Van Morrison, the Irish singer song-writer who grew up in Belfast listening to and playing American blues and soul music, has spent most of the last 12 years here, writing songs and making recordings. Many of his songs are among the most important and original rock music of our time, deep, raw, insightful and powerful.
A lugubrious, uncompromising man at times, Morrison is steadfast in his refusal to become a rock "entertainer." At the core of his songs there is a determination to make sparks, to celebrate the pulse and breath of living, to grab at the gristle of real life.
He has always been a musician struggling to come to grips with his deepest feelings and to express them through his artistic vision -- the lost dreams, the puzzle of faith as a deterrent to despair, and the reveling gained from the occasional glimmers of spiritual recognition.
This sort of music is not exactly what the great bulk of pop music listeners are listening to today, or for that matter, what they were listening to yesterday. But nevertheless, Morrison has a fairly large body of fans, and he has gained them on his own terms, chipping flint against stone fairly successfully to produce a body of incandescent songs over the years.
His new album, "Into the Music" (Warner Brothers HS 2290), contains several intriguing musical surprises.
First of all, there are three or four songs on the album that are so striking on first hearing -- particularly the hauting love sone "Angelieu" and the sprightly and confident offertory to his muse in "You Make Me So Free" -- and so continually illuminating after repeated listenings that they must rank with his finest songs.
All the hallmarks of his best work are there -- the fervid conviction of his gutty vocal delivery, the flawless and incisive phrasing and the intriguing paradox of his accessible melodies and his mesmeric and imaginistic lyrics.
For the first time, he has added fiddlers to his band. To hear his voice take on the quality of the silky rasp of a violin's lower ranges as he sweeps and soars against the sound of the instruments is such a musical delight that I wonder why he didn't think of it before. The fiddles -- actually one musician, by the name of Toni -marcus -- provide a unique double function, serving both the obligatory "arranged" string section and then as a more improvisatory "fiddling" obligato accomplishment.
In addition to musicians from his scuttled 1978 tour, like longtime bass player David Hayes, guitarist Herbie Armstrong and drummer Peter Van Hooke, Morrison has called upon pianist Mark Jordan, who put out his own well-received Warner Brothers album last year and who also played on one of Morrison's best-selling early albums, "Moondance." It is Jordan, Hooke and Armstrong who bring such solid and contemporary feel to much of the album, somewhat reminiscent of the style of the instrumental group stuff.
One gets the feeling that Morrison, who in the past has not gotten such a coherent sound to his recordings, is now more aware of the arranger's role in modern pop music and is spending more time with his players -- or allowing his players to suggest ideas for the arrangements of his songs. This is not to say that Morrison has been as deaf to crafting well-arranged songs as, say, Bob Dylan; it's just that his R&B knowledge of orchestration often needs the help of well-rounded players with new ideas for the tried-and-true song structures.
No bit departures here, however; no sophisticated chord tensions or modal playing on the album. I don't think Morrison is interested in pursuing the grail of Steely Dan. His approach is quite the opposite, in fact -- expressionistic and emotional -- but he has great discipline over his voice, and his delivery of soulfuly charged phrases is never gratuitous or exhibitionistic.
His voice has never been a remarkably pure instrument, but it has always possessed a keen and salty tone that in his early years he didn't handle to his best advantage. But on "Into the Music," he seems to be much more aware of how expressive it can be.
His range, including his multitonal "head voice," is about an octave and a fourth, but he is accurate with pitch and tone and he has an appealing quality of hitting a note, particularly at the beginning of a chorus, for example, with an intensity and vigor. Other times it has a piercing, jabbing quality, and he scarcely ever holds a tone longer than a whole note, even in ballads.
He also has been able to use the upper baritone range in the last few years, which is used to great advantate in the whisper-to-a-shout rideouts he favors on so many of his songs ("Listen to the Lion" and his favorite show closer, "Cypress Avenue").On this album, he tries some intriging polyrhythmic vocal fencing with the solid backbeat of "And the Healing Has Begun," at turns gliding with then chopping against the pulse.
Morrison, when he does a cover tune, makes it his own. His version of the Joe Raposo's "Green," (the one Kermit the Frog sings) on an earlier LP is a fine example, and this time he's taken the old squeeze tune "It's All In The Game," stripped it bare of the crooner style Tommy Edwards gave it, and turned it into a charming song of heated adolescent romance.
Another surprising reason this might be the Van Morrison album you would want to get hold of: He sings a jig, one of his own. If you ever wanted to hear the little Irishman take on that area of music (not counting Tura-Lura-Lura" on the "Last Waltz" LP), you won't be disapplinted. He even recruited Robin Williamson to play penny-whistle on the tune, which is called "Rolling Hills."
A confident, forceful and pleasing collection. Bill Holland is a singer-songwriter who leads a Washington-based group called "The Rent's Due Band."