VAN MORRISON-INTO THE MUSIC.

VAN MORRISON-INTO THE MUSIC.

Back in August 1979, when Van Morrison released Into the Music, this was seen as almost a comeback album for him. His two previous albums Period of Transition in 1977 and Wavelength in 1978, hadn’t been particularly well received, and Into the Music was seen as a much better album. Since then, Into the Music is perceived as one of Van’s best ever album. On the album, are a wide variety of styles of music. There is everything from R&B to Celtic music and even elements of Philadelphia Soul. The album was recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, during the early part of 1979. A number of guest artists featured on the album, including Ry Cooder, who played slide guitar on Full Force Gale. Mark Isham who played trumpet on the album, told Van about tenor saxophone player Pee Wee Ellis, who lived nearby. Van was able to recruit Pee Wee to play horn on Troubadours. Robin Williamson, formerly of the Incredible String Band, was another high profile guest on the album, playing penny whistle on Troubadours and Rolling Hills. When the album was released, it reached number twenty-one in the UK album charts, while it reached number forty-three in the US Billboard 100. Critics however, loved the album, hailing it a return to form for Van Morrison. Rolling Stone magazine saw the album as a resurrection of Van’s career, while Dave Marsh thought the suite of ballads on the second side of the album, as Morrison’s best side of music since Astral Weeks. This was high praise indeed, but is Into the Music as good an album as the critics said?

Into the Music opens with probably the best known track on the album, Bright Side of the Road, which was released as a single, reaching number sixty-three in the UK singles charts. The track opens with the familiar combination of piano, rhythm section harmonica, guitars and horns before Van sings. Here, his voice is loud with that familiar timbre present. Behind him, the arrangement is full and uplifting, moving quickly along, a glorious melange of instruments driving the track along. Horns, piano and harmonica play important parts, while the rhythm section, guitars, fiddles and even tablas, supplement the sound. Van meanwhile, is accompanied by backing vocalists, their sweet voices, a perfect accompaniment to his charismatic, gruff and rasping voice. By the end of the track, this joyous, feel-good track, which features both a great vocal from vocal and one of the best arrangements on the album. If the remainder of the album is this good, it’ll truly be a return to form for Van.

Drums, guitars and fiddles combine before Van sings, his voice sounding strained and laden in character as it soars high as Full Force Gale opens. Quickly, the arrangement unfolds, the tempo quick with horns brightly punctuating the sound, as the track drives along with a fulsome combination of rhythm section, fiddles, piano and guitars. Together, with joyful sounding backing vocalists, they provide the perfect backdrop for Van’s vocal, which is a mixture of passion and power. He seems determined to deliver some really literate, and deeply spiritual lyrics, with everything he has. It seems that they’re important to him, and he wants his delivery which is both heartfelt and sincere to reflect this. During this track, there are elements of traditional Celtic music and R&B present, because of the mixture of instruments that feature. This reflects the importance of both genres of music in Van’s life. What makes this such a good song are the lyrics and Van’s heartfelt and passionate delivery of them, with the band providing a similarly passionate arrangement.

The theme that runs through Into the Music, is a celebration of love and life. Steppin’ Out Queen is one of the love songs on the album. It begins with piano, drums and the horn and string sections, combining to produce a dramatic arrangement. Gradually, the drama builds and when Van enters, he too, adds to the already dramatic arrangement. His voice is strong, full of passion, while the arrangement builds and builds, horns, strings and rhythm section combining with guitars, piano and backing vocalists. As the song progresses, Van’s voice strengthens, he almost roars and snarls, his voice soaring. Then, when it falls, a softer, more thoughtful vocal emerges. However, throughout the track, his delivery is a combination of drama, emotion and passion, all the time, accompanied by another lavish arrangement, which is awash with sweeping strings, blazing horns and a driving rhythm section. Together, they produce one of the album’s best tracks, one that’s melodic and hook laden.

Troubadours is another love song, which has lyrics about the time when troubadours travelled around, singing their love songs to women. Here the arrangement has a lovely old fashioned sound and feel, with fiddles, penny whistle, trumpet, saxophone and drums combining beautifully. Van’s vocal and the arrangement are both atmospheric, made all the better by subtle backing vocalists. Throughout the track, Mark Isham’s trumpet and Pee Wee Ellis tenor saxophone interject beautifully, while Robin Williamson’s penny whistle adds authenticity to the track. Overall, it’s a lovely lush sounding track, featuring a much more understated, yet beautiful vocal from Van. Although very different to the rest of the album, this has always been one of my favorite tracks from Into the Music.

After such a beautiful previous track, Rolling Hills is a very different song, one that has a real Celtic feel and sound, with penny whistle, fiddles and piano, combining with guitars and rhythm section. It’s a track about Van’s Christianity, how he reads The Bible and lives his life in a Christian way. Personally, this has always been a track that I’ve disliked, mostly because the track seems totally out of place on the album. I feel it spoils the flow of the album, and seems out of place. It seems that after four tracks that flow beautifully, this track seems on the wrong album. It certainly doesn’t belong here. The sentiments of the song may be admirable, but the arrangement just grates. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always felt it stuck out like a sore thumb. Thankfully with a CD, I can program the machine to miss out this track. Overall, it’s easily the worst track on the album.

Thankfully, what was the first track on the second side of my old vinyl album, You Make Me Feel So Free, is a much better track than the one closed side one, Rolling Hills. This however, is so much better. Horns, rhythm section, piano and guitars accompany a joyful sounding Van as the track bursts into life. It’s a track that has a beautiful uplifting, feel-good sound, with horns sweet and bright punctuating the sound, and the piano adding to what’s already a joyful sound thanks to Van and his backing vocalists. Here, Van gives one of his best vocals on the album, he sounds really happy, joyous even, as he sings the lyrics of what’s another beautiful love song. The addition of the backing vocalists to accompany him, really helps life the track. Their voices are the perfect contrast to Van’s voice. Together with a stunning arrangement, one that’s quick, with an uplifting, melodic, feel-good sound, Van and his band start what was side two brilliantly.

Many years ago, someone I knew was talking about a song that Deacon Blue had released on one of their albums called Angelou. They thought this was a track that Deacon Blue had written, until I explained that it was originally written and recorded by Van Morrison. They hadn’t heard of Van, so I said why not buy this album and hear the original. The next day, all they could talk about was Van Morrison, not just Angelou, but the whole album. After that, they became a huge fan of Van, buying every album he’d ever recorded. Since then I’ve heard Deacon Blue’s version, but nothing comes close to the original. Guitars, piano and violin combine as the track opens, before Van sings, his voice powerful but hugely soulful, as he delivers some beautiful lyrics, about falling in love with a stranger in Paris. Meanwhile, guitars, rhythm section and horns help augment the sound, which takes a dramatic turn with Van half-singing, half speaking the lyrics, with a whispery and sometimes raspy vocal, until he powerfully roars the lyrics, emotionally and passionately. Behind him, strings, piano, horns and rhythm section, supplemented by guitars and sweet backing vocals help complete the sound. Together, they help Van produce an emotion laden vocal, delivered passionately and powerfully. Quite simply, this is a beautiful and stunning track, one you’ll immediately be smitten by.

Guitars, rhythm and string section, combine with piano and guitar before Van sings the lyrics to And the Healing Has Begun, a song about the healing power of music, a  recurring theme in his music. This is another track with a fuller arrangement, one that has a variety of contrasting sounds and influences. Here, elements of R&B and Celtic music can be heard during the track. Although the various instruments contrast, somehow they combine melodically, to provide a perfect backdrop for Van. During the track, Van’s voice is hugely powerful, as he roars, whoops and hollers the lyrics. Later, he half-sings, half speaks the lyrics, while the band slow the tempo down, with organ, keyboards and guitars combining with the string and rhythm sections. After that, Van uses a mixture of passion and power, and helped by some hugely talented musicians, this emotional song drives quickly to a close. 

It’s All In the Game is an epic ballad, lasting just over eight beautiful minutes. It’s a cover version of a fifties pop single, which is totally different to the original. Here, Van totally reinvents the song, transforms it into something new and very different. The tempo is slow, with piano, string and rhythm section combining before Van sings. When his vocal enters, his voice is strong, but with a tenderness, as he takes great care delivering the lyrics. Behind him, the arrangement has an understated quality at the start, which continues throughout much of the track. Sometimes, horns interject, brightly drenching the arrangement. Mostly, the piano and strings are the mainstay of the arrangement, with Van’s voice sitting atop the arrangement. During the track, his vocal changes, from a raspy whisper, to a much louder, powerful and passionate style. Like the arrangement, it’s a mixture of styles, one minute understated and beautiful, the next much fuller and grander. Earlier, I said Van totally reinvented this track, and over eight minutes, he breathes new life into it, reinvigorates it, reinventing it and in the process, producing a beautiful track, with an arrangement that’s perfect for the track, slow and subtle, but sometimes, laden with horns, who inject life and drama, brilliantly.

Into the Music ends with You Know What They’re Writing About which begins with piano, strings and rhythm section playing as Van delivers a vocal that’s laden in drama and atmospheric. His vocal has a raspy, whispery quality, but quickly, it becomes much louder, as he almost bawls out the lyrics. Behind him, the arrangement has grown, with the piano, rhythm and string sections, accompanied by guitars, combining to create the perfect backdrop for Van, as the arrangement unfolds. The tempo is slow, with wave upon wave of beautiful music unfolding, with a saxophone blowing, its sound sweet and melodic. It accompanies Van’s dramatic and powerful vocal, which is full of emotion and passion. The longer the track goes on, the better the arrangement gets, building and building, until Van decides to drop the tempo way down. Then, it’s just subtle piano, strings and drums playing quietly as Van sings, his voice much quieter, almost whispering and ad-libbing until the track ends. This is the perfect track to close the album, like Bright Side of the Road was the perfect song to open it. Both tracks are like musical bookends, with a great song opening the album and one closing it. In between, are seven other great tracks. Van it seemed, had kept one of his best tracks to close the album with. Like the other four tracks on what was side two of the original album, it’s a track of the highest quality, one that’s slow, yet full of emotion and passion.

Having spent some time listening to Into the Music recently, I can say without a doubt, that this is just as good an album as critics said when the album was released in August 1979. On the album are ten songs, and apart from Rolling Hills, each song is of the highest quality. What was the second side of the original vinyl album, from You Make Me Feel So Free to You Know What They’re Writing About, are five great songs, and it’s true to say that this was the best side of music Van had released since his masterpiece Astral Weeks. What surprises me however, is that it wasn’t a much bigger commercial success. In 1979, it only reached number twenty-one in the UK and number forty-three in the US. Granted, an artist had to sell many more albums back then to get an album into the top ten, but surely such a good album should’ve been a bigger success. Of course, punk and post-punk were the flavor of the month in 1979, so artists like Van were unfashionable. Thankfully, while many of the punk and post-punk artists sunk without trace, Into the Music has since be reappraised, with critics realizing just how good an album it really is. After two albums that weren’t well received, Van was back, back with one of his best ever albums. It’s an album that’ a celebration of love and life, and sees Van’s songwriting and voice back to its very best. He was backed by a hugely talented group of musicians and backing vocalists, all of whom contributed towards making this such an outstanding album. Standout Tracks: Steppin’ Out Queen, Troubadours, You Make Me Feel So Free and Angelou.

VAN MORRISON-INTO THE MUSIC.

2 Comments

  1. keef

    enjoyed reading this review and the ojays-i hadn’t bought a van album since st dreview when i bought this in79 and i was ready to be disappointed-he and many others from an earlier era seemed irrelevant and out of date.however i.m has remained a great favourite ever since, in fact i think i’d only rate astral weeks above it-the dreamy quality of game and the wonderful celebration of troubadours can’t be beat-in fact i just watched a performance of the latter at montreaux80 which wrought out the full meaning;throw open those windows and welcome those troubadours here.

    • Hi Keith, Thanks for your kind comments. I’ve always been a great fan of Van, but have been disappointed with his recent releases. Personally, it’s his early work that I really enjoy, and I agree, Astral Weeks is a fantastic album. I’m glad you enjoyed The O’Jays article, it really is a hugely powerful album. Keep reading the blog, I put a new article up each day. Thanks again. Derek.

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