ALONG WITH Al Green and Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison is one of the great pure pop singers of his generation. Morrison is able to hunt down the most elusive emotion and roll it around his muscular throat until it acquires a tangible physicality. Morrison once again turns the spirit into flesh on his new, self-produced album, "Inarticulate Speech of the Heart" (Warner Bros. 23802-1)
In 1969 Morrison offered to take his listeners "Into The Mystic." Since a conversion to mystical Christianity around 1978, he has taken them nowhere else. Morrison's original gift was to evoke the excruciating conflicts of daily life with his gravelly rhythm and blues voice and then provide release into an ecstatic optimism with his soaring jazz voice. On his last four albums, he has spent less and less time on worldly conflict and more and more on spiritual release.Thus "Heart" is suffused with gorgeous, intoxicating spirituality but almost no hint of the world Morrison has released himself from. It may be the most calming, uplifting album one will hear this year, but it has little to do with the workaday world.
Morrison's voice works mostly with long, sustained notes that rise majestically and fall gently in heavenly arches. Instrumentally, the record also emphasizes sustained notes from vocal-like instruments: saxophone, flute, organ, synthesizer and uileann pipes. Morrison has always stressed the reedlike quality of his voice till it now resembles a leather saxophone; Pee Wee Ellis' real saxophone often functions as Morrison's alter ego.
The Belfast-born Morrison, 37, brings his native Irish folk music and the Afro-American gospel music of his first heroes--Sam Cooke and Ray Charles--to his personal hymns. The ancient Irish traditions of piper Davey Spillane and guitarist Arty McGlynn are most obvious on two instrumentals, "Connswater" and "Celtic Swing," but are woven into every song. The R & B ache of Morrison's voice is present every time he opens his mouth but especially on the more secular songs like "The Street Only Knew Your Name" and "Cry For Home."
Four of the album's 11 cuts are instrumentals. As Morrison reaches into the rarefied regions of religious mysticism, he has more and more trouble finding lyrics to match the splendor of his music. Thus the title sums up the album's strength and weakness: As directly connected to the heart as the music is, it remains inarticulate. The title song is first presented as an instrumental, floating on a wordless female choir across simple but hypnotic piano chords. The song is later offered with Morrison chanting nothing more than the title as if his tongue could not shape the emotions pouring through his throat.
For an example of the old Morrison who wrestled with earthy problems, turn to his "Wonderful Remark," which concludes the soundtrack of "The King of Comedy" (Warner Bros. 23765-1), just as it closes the film. Written in 1969 but newly produced by Robbie Robertson, the song deals with the same themes--just as powerfully--as Martin Scorsese's movie. The verses complain that most of us are excluded from any real satisfaction, but on the chorus, Morrison looks right in the mire and admits, "I told a million lies--to myself, to myself." Robertson's soulful production and stabbing guitar prevent Morrison from flying to heaven and forces him down in his gut.
Scorsese, who befriended The Band's leader while making "The Last Waltz," put Robertson in charge of the soundtrack with "research and assistance" by Garth Hudson. Robertson produced four new tracks himself, commissioned five others and incorporated the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang."
The heart of the album is in the five songs that measure--as the film does--the distance between expectations and acceptance. Ray Charles gives a beautifully understated reading of Mercer and Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine," the best thing he's done in years. Robertson's production likewise brings a sharp focus to B.B. King's "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness (If I Do)." Rickie Lee Jones pays tribute to her mentor with a wistful rendition of Tom Waits' desperation-filled lullaby "Rainbow Sleeve." Robertson is joined by two former partners from The Band--Hudson and Richard Manuel--in a grand new song, "Between Trains." Once again drawing on Americana imagery, Robertson evokes the feeling of not belonging anywhere.