BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Following a stint as a regular in the ‘60s squads of British invaders – courtesy of his role at the helm of the Irish band Them – Van Morrison decided to pursue solo success, scoring his first hit soon after with “Brown Eyed Girl,” and shortly thereafter with his metaphysical masterpiece, Astral Weeks. It was an abrupt change of pace for Morrison, one which abruptly boosted him to the highest plateau reserved for only the most preeminent singer/songwriters. While earlier outings ensured his standing on the pop charts (“Here Comes the Night” and “Gloria” with Them, the aforementioned “Brown Eyed Girl” on his own), it took the full depth and weight of his subsequent albums to ensure this shift in stature.
Still, at the time of this transformation, circa 1969, few were certain of Morrison’s intents, much less his change in direction. In retrospect, Astral Weeks remains nothing less than a singular achievement, one that’s frequently included in critics’ lists of the greatest albums of all time. Yet, it never sold well initially, and despite its transcendental qualities, it was deemed too obtuse for commercial appeal. It was left to its 1970 follow-up, the equally brilliant Moondance, to continue the connection between Morrison and the masses. With such soon-to-be standards as the title track, “Crazy Love,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” “And It Stoned Me,” “Come Running” and “These Dreams of You,” it possessed a soulful swagger, a rousing sense of urgency and determination, as well as an immediacy that its predecessor clearly lacked. They were songs so compelling, they became enduring anchors in Morrison’s ongoing trajectory.
Not surprisingly then, the decision by Warner Bros to offer an expanded reissue of this seminal effort — complete with alternate takes, between-song patter and tunes that didn’t make the original cut — was greeted enthusiastically by fans. Worth noting that it was received with considerably less joy by Morrison himself, who took to his website on July 18 to post the following terse commentary:
“Yesterday Warner Brothers stated that ‘Van Morrison was reissuing Moondance. It is important that people realise that this is factually incorrect. I did not endorse this, it is unauthorised and it has happened behind my back.
“My management company at that time gave this music away 42 years ago and now I feel as though it’s being stolen from me again.”
The statement now appears to have been removed from the website, but the artist’s attitude was certainly unequivocal. And for the most part, there’s really little here in the way of revelation. While the various takes of the aforementioned songs find the musicians faithfully repeating the same arrangements over and over — mainly spurred on by Morrison’s insistence that another take is needed — the repetition quickly wears thin, and even though the results were transcendent, hearing them over and over does become… well, ummm… tiresome. (Although, admittedly a song as beautiful as “Into the Mystic” does stand up to repeated listens.) Still, it’s to the credit of all involved that these tracks sound like they emerged fully formed, with both vocals and arrangements that clearly doe justice to the final versions even from the get-go.
As a result, the ultimate incentive to shed big bucks for the 4-CD and Blu-Ray edition, or even the more modestly priced two-disc set, comes in the form of the liner notes, the elaborate packaging and, mostly, the rarities. “I Shall Sing” provides the motherlode, a song later covered by Art Garfunkel but heretofore unreleased in its original incarnation. Sadly though, preliminary run-throughs of “I’ve Been Working,” a song ultimately destined for His Band and Street Choir are decidedly less compelling, given the rote, roughshod composition of these earlier attempts. Likewise, a try at the depression-era standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” garners passing interest, but little that measures up to the final set list.
Like any reissue of this sort, the bonus tracks struggle to attain the high bar achieved by the album in its original incarnation. A curiosity for collectors, it will likely only be deemed essential by the most dedicated devotee.
DOWNLOAD: “I Shall Sing” (final mix), “Caravan” (take 1),