Monday, 1 April 2013
Top 102 Albums⁺ No 28 St Dominic's Preview
St Dominic's Preview - Van Morrison
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."
The Van Morrison of St Dominic's Preview is always on the edge of apprehension, travelling, reaching for, trying hard "to make this whole thing blend". He is seeking some kind of ecstasy, some Blakean revelation where words and music combine together to open the zipper which keeps your eyes blind to the invisible, your ears deaf to the inaudible, your fingers insensible to the impalpable. It's Almost Independence Day.
The album opens with Jackie Wilson Said, and like Keat's celebration of Chapman's Homer, Van celebrates Wilson's translation of love into music. Is it love, or the song of love, that lifts Van into heaven? Words do not suffice, sound and love are moving Van. He gives himself over to the effort to express the inexpressible.
"And you know just where you are
When you wanna roam"
Gypsy opens with a sound that The Violent Femmes would recapitulate twenty years later. It seems to be hung on a tightrope between solitude and companionship. Who is the Gypsy? Can rootlessness and roots be reconciled? A song of exile and rootlessness, but also of belonging to the road, the campfire, the moon and the stars - "You know just where you are / When you wanna roam."
I Will be There is the most innocuous song on the album, a traditional jazz blues number reminiscent of Ray Charles. Fine but not quite as replete with revelation as the rest of the album.
Goose bumps and delirium. How can you listen to the opening of Listen to the Lion and not feel both. Once again Van is looking for something
"And I shall search my soul
I shall search my very soul
And I shall search my very soul
I shall search my very so-o-oul"
At times freewheeling through the notes, at times banging his head off the wall that separates him from expressing himself, wishing his voice could take flight so fully he metamorphosed into pure yearning sound, He almost loses speech and returns to inarticulate moaning. Van goes back to generations who sailed to Caledonia, from Denmark looking for a "brand new start," tying his spirit to that of the Vikings, searching for strength from deep within.
In St Dominics Preview here he is cleaning windows, trying to reveal the view outside and also harking back to his work as a window cleaner in Belfast. Stopping and starting, repeating phrases, Morrison becomes shamanic. Perhaps, like St Dominic, he is the patron saint of astronomers, discovering new planets. He is in Paris but also in Vegas and also in Belfast and Buffalo. In the songs multiple experiences tumble in parallel and Morrison tries to bring them all together, to reach some epiphanic moment that always remains tantalisingly out of reach. The images are fluid - when he sings 'I hope the joists / don't blow the hoists" I see the giant cranes of Harland and Wolff dismantling the Golden Gate Bridge and the Lagan pouring into San Francisco Bay.
"Boy and his dog / Went out looking for the rainbow" Redwood Tree works as a cry to nature for it's embrace and protection and also as a song about childhood and once again sets a human alone with nature side by side with a couple, this time a boy and his father. It feels like the relationship of the solitary with nature is complete right from the start but humans need to learn to live with each other.
In Almost Independence Day Van repeats again and again the phrases I can hear / I can see / I can feel. The sensory overload that runs through the whole album heads towards a climax it can never quite reach.
I haven't even tried to describe the music, the celtic soul, a semi improvisational melding of jazz, Irish , soul, soundtrack and more besides. A stunning, beautiful, devastating album that stands with Astral Weeks as the greatest achievement of the solo Morrison. I've a feeling, yes I have a feeling, in my fingertips and whiskers that I have come to this far too early. This is sometimes my favourite album and after two days listening to it and little else it currently is.