Van Morrison's "Beautiful Vision" is lush and expansive; its title describes both the music and its lyrical content. Yet in its reach for heaven, it loses its artistic grasp on earth.
Whether it's because of the sustained serenity of the album or the singer's own satisfied soul, the album gives the eerie feeling that Morrison's role in making it was one of doe-eyed passivity instead of firm, benevolent guidance.
The music is ethereal and, yes, beautifully conceived, though it borders dangerously at times on the soporific. Morrison's phrasing is the most uniquely soul-stirring in all of popular music, and "Beautiful Vision" finds him no longer even working up to a transcendent level; he's already there, communicating directly with his own spirit. What's alarming is the way the music, his former vehicle into the mystic, often is left by the way like some scorned earthly possession.
Morrison's failure to pay attention to musical detail results in an unbalanced effort whose inferior musicianship offsets its spiritual rapture. Although each song builds to a certain level, lack of tension leads to a general failure of release, and his muted, blissfully indifferent production shows a near aversion to dynamics or ensemble interplay. Worse, the backup vocals of Bianca Thornton, Pauline Lozano and Annie Stocking are superfluous -- at best, stained-glass window dressing; at worst, appallingly thin and flat, as on "Dweller on the Threshold."
Morrison's lyrical subtext presents itself as early as the opening cut. "Come home, children, come home" urge the mothers of "Celtic Ray," and this cautionary theme insinuates itself into the very grooves of the album. On "Northern Muse (Solid Ground)," the manifestation of faith as woman is typically risk-wary. Against a sepulchral organ, Morrison extols the virtues of a woman who "moves on solid ground." She "lifts me up / fills my cup"; nevertheless, the singer keeps passion at arm's length: "If you see her, say hello."
"Dweller on the Threshold" promises dynamic relief, but instead delivers a puerile sax solo by Pee Wee Ellis, a sloppy trumpet chorus reminiscent (by design or not) of the processional from "The King and I," and more religious cliches than the "700 Club".
The title track is a rhythm-and-blues manifesto of faith that leads naturally back to the girl-as-gospel soul of "She Gives Me Religion," a lightweight ending for Side One. Metaphoric simplicity buoys the opening track of Side Two, and "Cleaning Windows" finds Morrison at his lyrical best. Opening on an aw-shucks guitar shuffle worthy of Willis Alan Ramsey, he assaults the senses with life's small glories, as if to nullify its small terrors. "Smell of the bakery from across the street / Got in my nose," begins Morrison, and before he even has a chance to introduce the primary metaphor, the listener is at home in territory in which the meek are truly blessed, the routine a source of revelation.
"Cleaning Windows" is a feeling man's "Stop and Smell the Roses," and Morrison is nothing if not sincere in his expression of joy. But the disproportionately humble have yet to inherit the earth, and his depiction of himself strains metaphorical license.
The song is also a continuation of the cosmic name-dropping he indulged on "Common One." This practice is no more attractive on Morrison than it is on Garland Jeffreys, though this time he spins off of blues legends instead of poets.
The biggest problem with "Windows" is the didactic tone underlying its shuffling cheerfulness. In the album's most telling lyrics, Morrison seems to advocate the virtue of adventureless self-protectionism: Curiosity killed the cat Kerouac's gone above. And on the road.
"Vanlose Stairway" is the most gratifyingly Morrisonesque of the lot, with its bluesy progessions and its heart-tugging sincerity ("Send me your Bible," petitions Morrison, adding with equal fervor, "Send me your gee-tar"). Here, even the backup vocals sound gospel-true.
The album reaches a kind of catharsis, musically at least, in "Aryan Mist," with the thunka-thunka dotted lazy-notes of the bass line and its spirited, building crescendo. The follow-up, unfortunately, is a disappointment, even as it evokes heaven itself. The flute intro to "Across the Bridge Where Angels Dwell" is irritatingly flat and cloyingly redolent of those slow-motion deodorant ads. "Close your eyes in fields of wonder" beckons the chorus, reinforcing the album's shunning of worldly care.
The album closes with "Scandinavia," a lovely instrumental in which Morrison transfers his unique phrasing from voice to piano. The majestic, rolling triplets and the crescendos and ensemble instrumental gospelisms suggest an eloquence absent from the vocal majority of "Beautiful Vision," and a musical finesse utterly lacking elsewhere. "Scandinavia" is a beautiful summation of a disturbing and problematical work in which, for the first time in years, Morrison' insistence on the practical applications of faith are drawn into question by his failure to attend to worldy aesthetics.
Van Morrison long has been perceived as a visionary because of his ability to plumb his soul, and his music is always a startlingly honest statement of what he finds there. In "Beautiful Vision," he seems finally to have attained heaven but is at a loss to describe it in the earthy, musical terms for which he is universally appreciated.
A musician I know, agnostically predisposed, edifies his group by passing around a Baptist hymnal before performances. Not only does he find that a gospel warmup opens the throat and steadies the pitch, but it seems to sensitize the antennae of the ensemble to each other, and to the transcendent nature of their art.
This feeling of spiritual transport has never been lacking in Van Morrison's music. But "Beautiful Vision" points up the need to reconnect with more unsavory, earth- bound values. Maybe that can be accomplished by running through a couple of choruses of "Gloria." Morrison's version.
THE ALBUM -- Van Morrison, "Beautiful Vision," Warner BSK 3652.