Searching for the Lion
It's possible that St. Dominic's Preview, his new album, is a retreat for Van Morrison. Which I'm not holding against him, mind you, it's just that his music life has been a crooked trail towards personal contentment, which he seemed to achieve in the domestic happiness of Tupelo Honey. The early, post-Them rantings of "T.B. Sheets," and "He Ain't Give You None," were nothing more than the transposition of his tormented personal life into his music. He began to solve those problems with Moondance, and finally dismissed them altogether for the connubial bliss of Tupelo Honey. In light of all that, Saint Dominic's Preview doesn't portend well for Van at all.
"Old Old Woodstock," and "Starting A New Life," formed the core of Tupelo Honey's first side, its affirmation of domestic life. In the former, there is the line, "Lord, don't it get you, when you're bound to roam--Hear you children singin' daddy's comin' home." The latter speaks of moving, but not of the kind of roaming fancied by troubadours. It is the moving of a family unit, "We gotta move, way on down the line,--Girl, we been standing in one place for too long a time." The feeling is reinforced by "You're My Woman," following it in sequence, a pure love song.
"Gypsy," in the current album, attempts to make a clean break with this life. It is a road song, a song of independence and self-sufficiency. "You can make it pretty good--When you're on your own." The song's point is simple, and straightforward, that "Any place you hang your hat, you know that that is home...but check it out first."
"Gypsy" signals a retreat for Van back into himself. It is in no way transitional. In both form and content the album strongly resembles Astral Weeks. Van's debut album for Warner's. With it, he continued to confront his personal problems, while changing the texture of his music. Saint Dominic's Preview is almost entirely a return to both. There are only seven songs, two of them over ten minutes. Five of those songs are personal statements, indicating that Van has again begun to face some of the same problems that made his earlier music so creative, and yet so agonizing.
"Redwood Tree" is a musically simple fable of searching, a seeking of shelter and protection. The song can be compared to Moondance's "Stoned Me," whose use of natural imagery sought more a communion with Nature than protection from it.
The title song is the most problematic on the album. It is a gathering of images so personal that, they defy any outsider's attempt at explanation. In both structure and phrasing, the song is partially reminiscent of Hendrix's "And the Wind Cries Mary," without the latter's cosmic reverberations. Nothing concrete can be said about the song's lyric. It's been reliably reported that the song combines images of Belfast. Van's hometown, and San Francisco, his new home, into a statement on the condition of his life at the present.
Lyrical obscurity is concluded in "Almost Independence Day," whose nearly ten and a half minutes manage to make not a shred of sense. But the song is not boring: on the contrary. Van brings it off nicely. The convoluted absurdity of the lyrics force the listener to shift his attention either to the way the music is played or the way the song is sung. "Almost Independence Day" is proof of the power in Van Morrison's voice and his delivery. He manages to succeed with a song that is lyrically nonexistent, by relying completely on technique. The amorphousness of the instrumentation helps to stress the voice, while simultaneously evoking a journey, which is what the song is about. Van employed the same style in the making of Astral Weeks, combining personal, somewhat complex writing with instrumentation and arranging that echoed the cool jazz of the early fifties.
"Listen to the Lion" is the album's most ambitious, and most complex piece. It differs from both "Saint Dominic's Preview" and "Almost Independence Day" in that it is completely straightforward. It is an intensely personal probing, a search for the lion that exists within Van Morrison. It is an attempt to summarize his recent past, and what may be his first attempt to confront the divisions in his personality that are audible in his music, and eminently visible in his live performance. The guttural rantings that make up the bulk of the song's eleven minutes are indeed unsettling, but they're meant to be, given the seriousness of the song. Van Morrison is here communicating on the lowest possible level--wordless sounds.
Van Morrison communicates with his voice better than any but the best of the blues singers. Other rock singers must resort to other means: James Taylor opposes the personalness of his statement with the Appalachian flatness of his voice; Jagger relies on his onstage phyrotechnics, as does Rod Stewart; Joan Baez and Judy Collins are interpreters; Joni Mitchell catches you with words. Only Van Morrison can get to you purely with his voice.
There are two other songs on Saint Dominic's Preview, and each is proof of Morrison's musical roots, and his complex personality. "I Will Be There" is a tribute to fifties saloon music, with an added thank you to the big band era. Every aspect of the music combines for this effect, the guitar chording under the first chorus for added mellowness, the horns playing in their lower registers for a bigger sound, the classic fifties eight bar tenor sax solo, and the piano and sax phrases mixed in between the choruses. Van sings this in concert and follows it with a version of "Misty," sung in the same style, that is positively earth shaking.
"Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" follows the tradition started by "Domino" and continued by "Wild Night." Van Morrison, no matter what'll happen the rest of the way through, opens with a rocker. This is the sureshot; if I don't hear this on WRKO's top ten instantly, I'm going to want to know way. It has everything, scat sung opening, with handclapping, a gorgeous eight bar progression, mostly nonsense lyrics, two horns overdubbed to make four, more energy than 2:56 deserves, and the musical resurrection of the words, "let it all hang out."
But for the most part, Morrison has taken an unmistakeable step inward. In the three years since Astrai Weeks, Van Morrison has released three albums and his wife Janet has been on the cover of each. She is not on the cover of St. Dominic's Preview.