In 1968 Van Morrison released what many will argue is not only his greatest album, but popular music’s greatest album, ‘Astral Weeks’. An incredible free form spontaneous poetic eulogy to the backstreets of Belfast, mixing mysticism with reality, all backed by a band of studio jazz musicians, thrown together and flying by the seat of their pants. Somehow it worked and it grows in legend with every new generation who hears it for the first time. Quite rightly it is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.
But as good as it is, I believe it was Van’s next album, ‘Moondance’ that I feel holds top spot in his expansive oeuvre.
Instead of the intensity that shrouds Astral Weeks, this album is almost a letting go, a weight off Van’s shoulders. It is full of some of popular music’s best songs…catchy, positive and soulful with brushes of jazz keeping the cats happy!
The track listing could be used as a “Van’s Greatest Hits”…every one of them special. And on their own, they remain great songs. In the context of this album, they are perfect, ethereal and sublime.
From the pastoral ode to a childhood memory ‘And It Stoned Me’ through to the nocturnal swing of the title track, Van Morrison was in his song writing prime. Van once again had his band learn songs on the go in the studio, as per previous album, but these tracks were slick and tight, buffed and honed, and given more time to fully develop. And where the previous album had focus on Van’s words and his voice, this album focuses on the songs as a whole. The album is flush with a tight horn section that carries the album as the lead instrumentation, giving it a subtle power throughout.
Highlights of the album include ‘Brand New Day’ a song of hope and belief that everything will be alright. ‘Come Running’ is light hearted and fun, and happened to be the highest charting single off the album and the sophisticated smooth jazz of ‘Moondance’ itself, probably the most played of all Morrison songs.
And ‘Caravan’ with it’s upbeat ‘la la la la’ chorus and lyrics about gypsies and radios, adds weight to the overall feel good, warmth of the album. Here Van harks back to his 60’s R&B days and belts out the song in rudimentary fashion.
And the caravan is painted red and white
that means everybody’s staying overnight
barefoot gypsy player round the campfire sing and play
and a woman tells us of her ways
The album is underpinned by the almost mythical, ‘Into the Mystic’ with its wonderful combination of Van’s haunted lyrics and the ebb and flow of the acoustic guitar and horns, taking the listener on a dreamlike journey into the unknown. It has had its lyrics interpreted by many….is it, at face value, a song about a sailor at sea, pining for his love and knowing that they will be together soon? Or is it more of an abstract take on life and whatever comes next? Perhaps Van’s greatest song?
When that fog horn blows
you know I will be coming home
and when that fog horn whistle blows
I gotta hear it
I don’t have to fear it
This album is my favourite Morrison album and is the go to album if I need to feel alright! Not a musical note nor lyric is wasted. Nothing is out of place or superfluous. It is simply great. Play it now and play it loud and fill your house with the joy that is Moondance.