Van Morrison's new album reveals both the work of a mature artist at the height of his powers and an age-old dilemma. Morrison is again aiming for the sublime, searching through his own inimitable version of the pop music idiom. But the album also shows him chafing at the restraints the commercial aspects can impose on its more inner-directed practitioners.
In "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher" (Mercury/Poly) Morrison wrestles with his situation, taking a retrospective look at the body of his work and at his musical and cultural heritage. Extracting certain themes and motifs, he expands and recycles them, and ultimately reweaves them into a rich tapestry that documents his journey and reaffirms his quest.
Some of these threads carry him back more than 200 years, linking him with the tradition of romanticism, with its emphasis on contemplation of nature as a vehicle for artistic and spiritual growth.
In "Got to Go Back," the first cut on the record, Morrison turns away from modern pop culture and returns, seeking solace, to the Irish landscape of his youth. Recalling his childhood reverie, gazing out of the schoolroom, and back at home listening to Ray Charles and reading Wordsworth "to pull me through," Morrison reaffirms the healing power of music. The song culminates in a dream-inducing lullaby and is followed by a warm evocation of being by his mother's side.
Evocation is one of Morrison's many skills. His ability to conjure up the feeling of a time or place with both lyrical images and sonic texture is abundantly evident on this album, where the clarity of the arrangements and the density of the mix are integral parts of the repertoire.
That Morrison is blessed with a superb band is also evident. He is supported by a glorious array of musicians, including saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and bassist David Hayes. Their sympathetic playing and the richness of their approach help give musical form to Morrison's vision, as in "Town Called Paradise," where bass and horns echo the descending chromatic line of a peal of church bells.
Another of Morrison's special gifts is his gospel singer's ability to transport his listeners through those most evocative landscapes to experience the charged spiritual atmosphere. He brings this gift, along with the full spectrum of his other strengths, to a transcendent peak in "In the Garden." In this journey through the meditative process, Morrison moves himself and the listener from a Gethsemane of sadness and disillusion to a shining vision that explodes in the mind's eye. A master work, it is the stunningly beautiful centerpiece of the album.
Morrison has certainly heeded Wordsworth's advice to poets to accompany whatever strong passions they wish to communicate with "an overbalance of pleasure," which, the poet adds, goes a long way toward tempering the "painful feeling always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions."
Yet, the Romantic view has not fared all that well in modern culture, and because an artist does not work in a vacuum but in a climate, in "Thanks for the Information," Morrison tries to call up that confounding climate where the music -- as-product-marketplace -- often chafes against the artist. As in his earlier "Snow in San Anselmo," he makes it clear that personaare too often very strange bedfellows.
The album ends with Morrison, who nevertheless has expreienced commerical acceptnace in his lonmg career, continuing to toil in his creative process, choosing the realm of the soul over the world of success.
Joan Armatrading, another unique, gifted songwriter and performer, tackles the marketplace head-on in her new release, "Sleight of Hand" (A & M Records SP 5130). Armatrading, who will perform at Wolf Trap on Tuesday and who has often pointed to Morrison as a major influence, also has a solid body of work, a devoted following and long-term record company association behind her, but mass appeal has eluded her.
Armatrading's new album explores the shifting base of modern emotional relationships. Her songs are peopled with a cast of characters, friends and lovers, whose experience of love runs the range from superficial to unrequited to magical. These solitary characters also face dilemmas in their own time, among them the paradoxical "Angel Man," the thief of hearts and money, who yearns for respect yet opts for survival.
Armatrading has chosen a contemporary, processed sound to surround her songs. While tough sound reinforces their content, it sometimes obscures her strongest instrument, her magnificent voice with its broad range from husky and rich to fragile and ethereal.
In "Jesse," the arrangement enhances her voice, and the character really emerges -- the hero conjurer, the only one who "can save her from the beast, save her from herself and all the troubles she imagines in the world." This song, with its lilting magical sheen, could provide Armatrading with that heretofore elusive hit single.