Van Morrison's Enlightenment another sign of transition
By CHRIS WANJEK
IT'S HARD TO GAUGE any Van Morrison album because all of them are so good. Even the appropriately-named Period of Transition from 1977, arguably Morrison's worst venture, is still a good album -- better than the best albums from many of today's musicians.
So to say that Morrison's new album, Enlightenment, is a disappointment is not saying that it is a bad album.
Enlightenment is a good album. The first half is absolutely wonderful -- some of his finest work. Morrison even plays harmonica once again on several tracks. But side two can't keep that same intensity, and this is where the album fails.
Morrison charges into the album with "Real Real Gone," an upbeat sax and trombone number, complete with quotes from James Brown and Wilson Pickett.
He then slows things down beautifully with a peaceful ending to "So Quiet in Here," reminiscent of "Listen to the Lion's" tranquil fade. Morrison begins the song with "Foghorns blowing in the night/Salt air in the morning breeze," and ends whispering, "Shhhhh, so quiet in here" -- proving that he still is the Celtic sultan.
"See Me Through" closes side one in a familiar way. Van is talking to his lover, whispering about earlier times in ancient days "When we we young . . . before before before rock 'n roll."
But then side two goes awry. It begins on a good note: "Youth of 1,000 Summers" is a celebration of the god of nature -- a god of youth and renewal.
But "In the Days Before Rock 'n Roll" is seriously flawed. This song should have been the album's centerpiece; Morrison turned it into a "gag" song. Instead of singing, Morrison gets Paul Durcan to speak through most of the song in a mimicking and thoroughly annoying voice. Morrison was meant to sing "Telefunken, telefunken," as he tries to tune in old European broadcasts on his primitive radio, "searching for Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Anthone, and AFM . . . for Fats, Sonny, Lightning, Muddy, and John Lee."
When he does finally sing, it's about "Ray Charles, the high priest," and it's wonderful. The whole song should be like this. "In the Days Before Rock 'n Roll" is a potentially brilliant song gone wrong -- very frustrating.
The last three songs are uneventful after this let down. This is why the album is disappointing; it collapses after riding so strong.
Enlightenment is like a Period of Transition II. By the late 1970s, Morrison had moved away from songs like "Domino" and "Wild Night." His albums have become more and more spiritual since 1980. Songs like "The Master's Eyes" and "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God" dug deeply into Christianity. Other songs like "Sense of Wonder" and "Dweller on the Threshold" were revelations of Morrison's own spirituality.
New songs from Enlightenment, like the title cut or "So Quiet in Here," follow in this same tradition. But other new songs, like "Start All Over Again" and "She's My Baby," are grossly out of place. It is as if Morrison is changing his style halfway through the album.
Maybe he is changing his style. After all, Morrison hasn't opened an album on a upbeat note since 1979's Into the Music, which featured "Bright Side of the Road."
What are the other signs of a transition?
Morrison personally compiled his latest "Best of" and then toured with his older material. He played songs during this year's concerts that he hasn't played in over a decade. And this summer, Morrison sang with Roger Waters in front of 300,000 people at the Berlin Wall -- a very "non-Morrison" thing to do.
It's a shame that Enlightenment falls apart with only four songs to go. But let it. If it hadn't been for A Period of Transition (the first one), we wouldn't have heard albums like Poetic Champions Compose or Common One. It's exciting to think that Van Morrison may take us in another direction -- perhaps further into the mystic.