Faith in God or country can be a great source of strength, but it can also be an excuse for intolerance. On their new albums, Van Morrison and Neil Young use faith in a positive and vital way; Bob Dylan and Charlie Daniels use it as a pretext for prejudice. It's no coincidence that the music of Morrison and Young sounds joyful and rooted in tradition, while Dylan and Daniels sound bitter and contrived.
Ever since Dylan converted to Christianity, his songs have divided the world into those who agree with his narrow religious views and those who are damned. Both his songwriting and performances have been overly exaggerated, as if he were trying to convince himself of something. Instead of his usual personal insights, he just gives us the party line. Instead of his old seductive understatement, he pushes dogma at us. On his new album, "Saved" (Columbia FC 36553), he condescendingly asks "Are You Ready" to agree with him. He claims he has "A Satisfied Mind," but his agitated performance contradicts the claim.
Van Morrison's new album -- "Common One" (Warner Brothers BSK 3462) -- contains a song called "Satisfied." His claim to spiritual satisfaction is more credible because it soaks through all his music. Morrison doesn't push his religious conversion at anyone. His songs simply celebrate his own spiritual peace. Only by listening closely do you find the reference to God as a source.
Morrison explains that spiritual peace has to occur "on the inside first." He also implies that the catalyst isn't as important as the peace itself. In fact, a 15-minute number called "Summertime in England" links religious faith, romantic love and British poetry as the different catalysts of his peace.
More important than mere explanation is the immediate spiritual experience of the music. Morrison takes us on a quest. The music struggles with obstacles ("the art of sufferin'") before attaining each radiant break-through. Pee Wee Ellis' glowing saxophone seems to coat Morrison's voice. An intelligent rhythm section adapts to Morrison's slowly meandering improvisations, and his voice has such a full tone that each harmony seems to resolve everything.
Charlie Daniel's album, "Full Moon" (Epic FE 36571), contains his recent hit single, "In America." Daniels baits his audience with the taunt, "A lot of people sayin' that America's fixin' to fall." What are we going to do about it? Well, Daniels suggests we tell the Russians to go to hell. If that doesn't work, we can rough up other countries like drunken football fans looking for vengeance. "Lay your hand on a Pittsburgh Steeler fan," he snarls, "and I think you'll understand." Not surprisingly, the song's music sounds harsh and blustery. Daniels punches out his diatribe right on a staccato beat and well within his miniscule range. Rather than looking for reasons to celebrate America, Daniels goes looking for enemies.
Canadian Neil Young isn't looking for enemies. Instead, he's found a real love for his adopted country, flaws and all, in "Hawks and Doves" (Reprise HS 2297). Young loves America and its people, which he clearly separates from the government, army and big business. How can you not like a country with the Pacific coastline, Sierra Mountains and Dakota plains, he asks. How can you not like a country where working folks stick together in democratic unions? How can you not like a country that invented jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll and country music?
"Oh, this country sure looks good to me," Young sings in one song. "I'm proud to be a union man," he sings in another. In yet another, he says we "got rock 'n' roll -- got country music playin'. If you hate us, you don't know what you're sayin.'"
To win over any doubters, Young and his band play an irresistible blend of rock and country. Rather than compromising either tradition. Young retains both the raw electric guitar and sweet country fiddle. This is old-timey country swing with a real bite.
Unfortunately, these strong songs are limited to side two of "Hawks and Doves." Side one is a mess. It seems a grab-bag of tapes that were left off earlier albums. The worst in "The Old Homestead," a seven-minute song from 1974, a pretentious parable that becomes a self-parody.
Young is honest enough to admit his country's failures. "In history we painted pictures grim," he concedes. "These fences are comin' apart at every nail," he warns. But he's making a commitment to mend the nation's fences. "Ready to go," he shouts proudly, "willin' to stay and pay. U.S.A.!"