The ‘other’ Van Morrison album you should own is not Moondance but Veedon Fleece. I say this not because Moondance is a weak album – it is in fact, hugely impressive – but rather because Veedon Fleece outshines it in every department, being the only other occasion in the entirety of Van’s recording career where he sailed close to the magisterial heights of Astral Weeks. Its continual exclusion from Classic Albums lists is akin to inaugurating a Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and omitting to include Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker, and is at once a great injustice. Classic album it certainly is. So might there be a way to convince a mass of Moondancers to switch allegiance and become fully fledged Fleecers?
Inspired by a trip to the Emerald Isle he made in October 1973, Morrison composed this set of songs, where a Blakeian romanticism inhabits the spirits of ancient Irish Saints and mystics, traversing old streets and monastery ruins, everywhere leaving echoes of its ghostly presence. It is truly one of its kind. But it is more likely to hinder my case if I begin by drawing attention to two songs which, situated incongruously in this most organically Celtic of albums, are US-flavoured fugitives, defectors from another time another place, that clearly do not belong here: ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Cul De Sac’. The former of the culprits, featuring John Tropea’s countrified guitar and a jarring accelerating tempo, is particularly disconsonant; the latter, a rigid, plodding rewrite of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ adds little save a frown on this listener’s brow. Of themselves, they are not bad songs any more than Moondance is a weak album, but feel completely at odds with the remainder of the record.
So instead, let me wax lyrical over the remainder, all of which is worthy of the highest commendation. The beautifully judged opener ‘Fair Play’, features stately piano over a gilt-edged acoustic strum – this time by Ralph Walsh who plays sensitively throughout. And that voice! It is sometimes easy to forget that Van possesses one of music’s most towering voices – by turns lion’s growl, fragile falsetto or at times an almost gut-wrenching open-throated bellowing of blues’n’soul. Here, his performance is both restrained and gorgeously melodious: (“Tell me of Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau/Let your midnight and your daytime/Turn into love of life/It’s a very fine line/But you’ve got the mind child/To carry on/When it’s just about to be/Carried on.”)
If Astral Weeks was the sound of ‘a man in pain’ (gratuitous link to Lester Bangs’ unsurpassed review – https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html.), then on Veedon Fleece we hear a new man, a man who is in love and in love with life (his new fiancée Carol Guida accompanied him on the Irish vacation where he wrote most of the songs). Van has always insisted that to write enduring music one has to feel happy, and there is a sense of that inner fulfilment permeating the record’s atmosphere.
‘Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’ is punctuated by a series of repetitive rising piano lines – no chorus – with strings bursting in at 1:42, lifting the music to new heights. Purportedly about an Irish ex-pat living in San Francisco – autobiographical? – with an ominous closing line hinting at a darker underbelly, “now he’s lonely living with a gun“, the onomatopoeic piano tinkle imitating breaking glass is courtesy Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, released the year before. If the guitar on ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ is intricate and understated, Van’s vulnerable delivery is a thing of beauty, so much so that one can forgive the more dubious choice of metaphor, “…or wish on a toilet roll” (whoever imagined they would hear that line in a song? A rival to Arthur Lee’s “Oh the snot has caked against my pants“).
Meanwhile, ‘Streets of Arklow’ introduces atmospheric flute – once again building on a repeated rhythm – this time slightly lengthier, with a dramatic orchestral sweep. Like many of the songs, it’s joyous stream of consciousness poetic impulse contains no chorus, no hook, but draws you in helplessly to its alluring depths. Morrison recalls reading books on Gestalt therapy at the time of the recording and there’s no mistaking the depth of emotion in the music. At the end of Side One, the epic ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River’ soars at the crest of a group of songs sometimes considered a ‘suite’ (though not spliced together fragments as on Side Two of Abbey Road), but which are rather linked thematically through an evolutionary passage of music of such ravishingly mysterious beauty it sounds like it’s heading inexorably towards some divinely eschatological revelation – which could be the mythical Veedon Fleece of the album title… “We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul/I mean the real soul, people/…We’re gettin’ out to the west coast/Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder/Goin’ as much with the river as not/…Blake and the Eternals oh standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy/Looking for the Veedon Fleece“.
The closing trio of songs represents a high watermark in Van’s career. The masterful ‘Come Here My Love’ is one of Van’s most enduring love songs. The antithesis of the rent-a-party floor filler that is ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, it is a song where he sounds entranced by spouse, nature, poetry and life itself. “Come here my love/And I will lift my spirits high for you/Id like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating the fields and leaves and talking about nothing/Just layin down in shades of effervescent, effervescent odors/And shades of time and tide/And flowing through/Become enraptured by the sights and sounds in intrigue of natures beauty/Come along with me/And take it all in/Come here my love“. It was covered by This Mortal Coil in 1986, but their version stripped it of its transcendent beauty (very unlike them) with Van’s very much the superior take.
Van’s capacity to make the simplest arrangement and verse sound utterly profound is illustrated most clearly on ‘Comfort You’ – any analysis of the song’s structure and content would be notable only for its brevity. By contrast the song seethes into one’s consciousness to be recalled time and time again. Contrast too, the way the spirit moves in the closer ‘Country Fair’, liberated from the technical virtuosity of ‘Cul De Sac’ where the highly accomplished playing is cold and static. Here the sparse sound creates spaces for free form flute, double bass (the songs work better without bass guitar) and washed out ghostly choir, recalling the voices in Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’. It could fit comfortably on to Astral Weeks and I can pay it no higher compliment.
Listening to the album on CD could be a potentially dissatisfying experience, there being no pause between the album’s centrepiece, the nine minute ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Pull The River’ (how about that for a dressed-up poetic title for a song where someone is receiving a pretty harsh dressing down?) which closes Side One, and ‘Bulbs’ which on vinyl would open Side Two. At least, lifting the needle could afford the listener a momentary pause and an opportunity to avoid such an abrupt rupture in the album’s flow. But get your mitts on whichever format is accessible to you and hear the blues howler, the jazzman, the mystic folksinger, the poet and Celtic Soul Brother make one of the best albums ever recorded. By anyone. (JJ)