Uncommon One

The news that there's a new Van Morrison album out should be thrilling. But for some of us there have been so many Morrison discs in the last year alone that it's a bit anticlimactic. And if anyone mentions that Ronnie Scott or that Georgie Fame is on the album, we're apt to bolt for the door. It's a terrible thing to complain about too many Van Morrison albums, rather like you've been given too much money, or you have too many bottles of Dom Perignon.

But let's not get carried away. The two Morrison albums from this year with the shrink wrap barely torn off -- How Long Has This Been Going On and Tell Me Something -- are both collections of that early-Sixties, Brit-boho jazz he loves so much. So there are a few bottles of Champale in there amidst the vintage bubbly.

And while I'm the first to put on Georgie Fame's old single "Yeah Yeah" and have a little beatnik raveup, to truly appreciate what Van Morrison is doing when he puts on his jazz porkpie hat and swings with the boys, you have be British or Irish; you have to have grown up in the Fifties and been passionate about jazz in a way many Americans of that age group were not.

And you, the semicasual fan, you say you've just worked your way up to 1995's Days Like This? Okay, find a Van Morrison discography, realize how many albums you didn't even know about, let alone own, and weep. (Whatever you do, don't try to lift the discography; you'll fall over trying.)

But yes, Morrison's new album is due out in early March, and thankfully it's a collection of regular, nonjazz Morrison music, called The Healing Game. His busy label will next issue The Philosopher's Stone, a two-CD compilation of unreleased rarities, in the fall of '97, having been delayed a year. And that's not counting the forthcoming John Lee Hooker album Morrison has produced for Virgin, Don't Look Back, due in late February. The producer also sings on that disc.

And wait -- don't close your wallet yet: The seven Warner Bros. albums Morrison cut from 1971 to 1978, ranging from Tupelo Honey to Wavelength, are finally being re-released by Polydor after having languished out of print for some time. Have you seen your copy of Tupelo Honey lately?

Today the good news is that The Healing Game is vintage late-period Van -- mellow, mystical, and searching. And you must have it. For while one "Have I Told You Lately" every ten years is permitted, we prefer the Morrison who's wondering about the nature of love; musing wistfully about lost love; castigating current, faithless loves; or just mumbling incomprehensibly with his face away from the mike, not the guy who's penning anniversary songs for aging baby boomers.

In his lyrics and in interviews, Morrison has often lamented that he was born sad, that he's always had the blues. But musically that's when he's at his best, when he's questioning everything. There's a sharp cuff for a lover in a line on the new album, from a song called "It Once Was My Life." And because, like most Morrison fans, we secretly keep tabs on his personal life, we wonder, Is he chiding an actual former lover? Has he lost his faith, or found a new meditation? It's exactly for people like us that Morrison writes songs like "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher," to put us off the scent. It doesn't work. Because we know that he suffered a messy, public breakup last year with his girlfriend, a former Miss Ireland. And that afterward he was even more irascible than usual at some live shows. His performances bordered on erratic and were not altogether entertaining.

So what does the new music tell us? That he's still doubtful, still searching. If anything, he seems to have become a bit defiant in recent years about universal or unconditional love, a concept that both traditional religions and today's new-age-infused culture puts forth.

Morrison clearly struggles with the concept. Although his songs are on one level mystical, an "inarticulate speech of the heart," on another they're very specific, noncliched gropings toward uncomfortable, often unfashionable truths. While the whole world seems to be turning to angels and touchy-feely religions, Morrison is looking back as always to his beloved "ancients," wondering if he has any faith at all.

Another thing the artist is cranky about is how people interpret his lyrics, especially when they insist upon reading deep meanings into them. As he peevishly asserted on the tune "Songwriter" from 1995's Days Like This: "Please don't call me a sage, I'm a songwriter/I do it for a living/I'm a songwriter/And I write about men and women...."

And yet one of his most important gifts as an artist is that the meaning of his music can be grasped only in the gaps, when the listener has dropped all defenses and sunk into the "slipstream," to use one of the proper Morrisonian terms -- into the mystic or the astral plane.

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