Natural Mystic

Hip-O's Van Morrison compilation shows the songsmith planted firmly on neutral turf.

From one stylistic perch or another, Northern Ireland's pop stalwarts have examined the violence between the region's Nationalist and Unionist communities: the Divine Comedy with "Sunrise," the Undertones ("It's Going to Happen"), Stiff Little Fingers (Inflammable Material), Phil Coulter ("The Town I Loved So Well"). But Belfast's other great export, Van Morrison, has remained loyally buttoned-up, and it's newly made evident on Hip-O's recent compilation of his work, Still on Top: The Greatest Hits. Oh sure, there have been a few casual references to the Troubles — the line "badges, flags, and emblems" in 1972's "St. Dominic's Preview" — but the songsmith has never tackled the conflict head-on.

When sorting through the tumble of emotions that rampant bloodshed can elicit, listeners often lean on the artists and the art spilling from that conflict's ground zero. And this is what makes Morrison's decidedly apolitical stance so frustrating. He's a master seanchai (traditional Irish storyteller), a talent richly displayed in tracks like the bottle-topped click-clack of "Madame George." He's also the architect of some of his island's most soulful, stirring music ("Brand New Day"). Imagine, then, the potential for his take on his native soil's unrest — especially when contrasted with the flummery being slopped out by lesser-qualified outsiders, who achieve nothing more than a warped sense of alien romance. James Taylor, we're looking at you.

However, what's often ignored, or altogether unrecognized, is that Morrison's hush-hush approach is actually very Northern Irish. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney once wrote of his homeland's "northern reticence." The signifiers are everywhere and often quite subtle — from the Protestant couple I rented from who had "1940" as their security code, to the cathedral bell that rings nightly to honor an ancient Catholic curfew. But still, locals are reluctant to talk openly about Northern Ireland's sectarian divide.

Once pressed to pick a side, Morrison famously responded, "All I can say is that I'm neutral." He's a mystic, remember, and mystics are always more indebted to otherworldly plots.

 
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