Van Morrison cuts a unique figure in the landscape of popular music. Never quite enjoying the critical cachet of his peers Dylan and Joni Mitchell, his music has been the subject of comparatively few full-length studies. He has not exhibited the sudden changes of style of an artist such as Bowie, nor does he seem to have entered a widely-praised ‘late period’ as was the case with Leonard Cohen. He has remained content to plough his own furrow, a singular furrow which has seen him hone the unique synthesis of R & B, jazz, folk and Celtic soul which has come to be recognised as the quintessential Van Morrison sound. Critical acclaim hails Astral Weeks as his creative peak, while commercial success only began for Van as an album artist (having been no stranger to the singles chart, first with Them and then as a solo singer) with the release of his next album, Moondance. In years to come, Van Morrison would alternate between the poetic, free-flowing sound of Astral Weeks and the tighter, more grounded feel of Moondance.
Every now and then, he would deviate from this path and release an album that demanded to be listened to purely on its own terms. Irish Heartbeat, recorded in collaboration with the Chieftains in 1987, was one such album, as was 1971’s Tupelo Honey, reflecting Van’s newfound domestic tranquillity in rural California.
Veedon Fleece is such an album. Not as intricate as the jazz-inflected Astral Weeks, or containing that album’s deliberately poetic lyricism, the record features a pared-down sound in which Van’s voice, often paired with James Rothermel’s evocative flute, has space to breathe. Relatively ignored on its first release in 1974, the album has since grown in creative stature, to the point where it is now regarded by some as his finest work.
The album was a revelation to me when I first listened to it. Familiar with Van Morrison’s more extrovert offerings, I was at first thrown by its predominantly quiet tone. It begins and ends softly, and only ‘Bulbs’ and the sprawling central track feature predominantly loud, fast music. This quietness seems to have had an echo in Van’s state of mind at the time. In 1973, in search of a temporary respite from the pressures of the music business, he took time off from touring and recording to visit the Republic of Ireland, with only one brief foray into the North to visit his old haunts in Belfast. It is possible to find echoes in one or two of the tracks of the ongoing Troubles, then at their height. The hushed and pastoral opening ‘Fair Play’ makes use of then-current Irish sayings with which Van was familiar. Among them is ‘tit for tat’, a phrase grimly familiar from then-recent news reports about retaliatory killings by paramilitaries. In addition, the Irish emigrant turned outlaw described in ‘Linden Arden Stole the Highlights’, who takes brutal revenge on rival gang members sent to kill him, also had contemporary echoes of the situation in the North, where violence was fast becoming a political currency.
In the main though, this album stays remote from current events. Unlike Bob Dylan or Prince, Van Morrison has never seen himself as a political commentator, preferring to concentrate on the facts of his inner life. Veedon Fleece provides compelling evidence of this focus. Almost all the tracks reflect in some way his personal reaction to an Ireland far removed from his own upbringing in industrial Belfast. This is evident in ‘Streets of Arklow’ which takes the listener to an outwardly unremarkable Irish seaside town, transformed in the songwriter’s imagination into a place of mystery and wonder. Van manages to evoke the impact that arriving in an unknown town can have on the traveller where the very streets that, to an inhabitant, are merely ordinary and workaday, can seemed charged with poetry to someone encountering them for the first time.
The album provides several moments like this, where the singer seems to relive some vivid personal experience, re-creating it through his uniquely expressive vocal delivery. The closing track, ‘Country Fair’ is another such example, where the fair becomes the portal to a timeless realm untouched by humdrum reality. Introduced with the bare repetition of a tonic and a fifth, somewhat reminiscent of the drone in Indian classical music, Van’s voice weaves a dreamlike narrative in counterpoint with a wandering flute line. Both the music and the lyrics, with their evocation of ‘the sweet summer time’ hark back to the mood of Astral Weeks, but here everything is calmer and more measured.
Barring one or two faster tracks, most of the music stays in this understated vein. Only one does the emotional temperature rise above boiling point, in the album’s centrepiece ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River’ which refers to a mystic search for an object known as the Veedon Fleece. What exactly the Veedon Fleece is, Van never makes clear. It seems to be a Grail-like object, standing for poetic inspiration or the recovery of some fleeting vision experienced long ago, perhaps in childhood. We undergo every stage of this search with the singer as he takes us, over the course of around nine minutes, from our everyday reality to an archetypal realm. As in some case of shamanic possession, Van seems to become the thing he is singing about, so that that the search, which takes us from Ireland through Denmark to Caledonia (an imaginary country of poetic inspiration, perhaps named in honour of the singer’s Scottish roots) is at the same time an act of inner transformation. In much the same way, when he sings ‘Listen to the Lion’ on Saint Dominic’s Preview he take on the attributes of a lion himself, as his singing moves ever closer to a kind of pre-verbal grunting and growling.
A much later track, ‘Take Me Back’ from 1991’s Hymns to the Silence shows that this capacity to embody states of being has stayed with him for much of his career. The latter track, where the singer regresses through repetitions of words and phrases to his childhood encounters with nature and music, shows the extent to which fidelity to personal experience, to the way things feel, is central to his art. Veedon Fleece, lacking the elaborate musical accompaniment of much of his work, allows the singer to share this experience more directly than usual. Not clearly definable in terms of musical genre, the album can best be understood as an attempt to convey what was going on in his mind at the time of recording.
In the early and mid Seventies, his mind was preoccupied to an unusual extent with Ireland. The title track of an earlier album, Saint Dominic’s Preview, was haunted by the state of conflict in his home town of Belfast, and much of Veedon Fleece can be seen as an attempt of a Northern Irish singer of Protestant heritage to situate himself in another, mythical Ireland remote from the contemporary Troubles. Yet Van’s fidelity to his own haunted state of mind means that the Troubles are not simply forgotten. They contribute not only to the overtones of violence in songs such as ‘Linden Arden Stole the Highlights’ or its successor ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ but, I would argue, to the fragile melancholy that suffuses the whole album, which is as authentic a witness of what it feels like to be alive at particular place and time as he ever recorded.