If I was to make a greatest hits collection of Van’s songs from this period and the threshold for a song’s inclusion was “among his very best,” we’d be talking about 50 songs or more. It’s an impossible task. This may be my favorite time period for Van.
I would like to be able to explain why. But I’m not sure I can do it. Maybe it’s the spiritual nature of the songs mixed with a kind of defiance. The mysticism is still there. The pastoral scenes. Nostalgia. Van’s voice reaching into the high heavens. There is a poetic quality to the majority of these songs that outstrips the rest of the time periods. And you can see this pretty clearly in Lit Up Inside.
These albums are Spring afternoons, crisp wine at dusk, sunlight on your face after a long winter, a blinding green field, and the gospel after the dark night of the soul.
I recommend these albums wholeheartedly.
A Sense of Wonder: 1985
I should get all the negative out of the way first. Though Van is smiling, the album art is terrible. The front is bad and the back is embarrassing. There is a guitar used throughout this album – prominently used in the first track – that reminds me of bad Christian music from the 80’s.
Only when you are honest can you move forward and see the good.
And there is a lot of good and great on Sense of Wonder. As a matter of fact, every song is worthy of your attention. And after I put on my parachute pants and Coca-Cola shirt, even that guitar didn’t bother too much.
In all seriousness, this album has a few classic songs and all the rest are still great songs. “His Master’s Eyes” is worth spending money on the whole thing.
Highlights: Tore Down a la Rimbaud, The Master’s Eye’s, A Sense of Wonder, Let the Slave
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher: 1986
A definitive album. And by that I mean an album that could be used as a textbook definition for the music of Van Morrison. It may not be his best but you get a great representation of what his music is and can be. Nostalgia for home, music, and the days gone by. The sounds of jazz. The poets. It’s all there.
And while I say it may not be his best album, it is probably up there for some. After all, it does have “In the Garden,” which I often think is his best song. I first listened to this album because of that one. As perfect a song as it is, it is even better in the context of the whole album.
Highlights: Got To Go Back, Foreign Window, In the Garden
Poetic Champions Compose: 1987
Maybe my favorite album title. And a beautiful album from start to finish.
Starts with a slow jazzy atmospheric instrumental. There is another one of these to start the second side. Poetic Champions Compose has a number of classic hits and that makes it easy to overlook all the other great tracks. I have always thought of this as “No Guru: Volume 2.” The sounds and atmosphere are the same.
Meditative. Contemplative. Literary soul music.
Highlights: Queen of the Slipstream, I Forgot That Love Existed, Did Ya Get Healed?
Irish Heartbeat: 1988
There is not much more to say about this album than it is easily one of my favorite albums ever. Heavy rotation in our household. I love Van. I love the Chieftains. When he sings, “I’m drunk today” in “Carrickfergus”, you can feel the heartbreak all the way down. When I first bought Irish Heartbeat, I listened to “I’ll Tell Me Ma” over and over till I knew every word and could sing along because it’s just so fun.
My wife’s favorite.
Highlights: Every single song deserves your attention.
Avalon Sunset: 1989
When I first started listening to Van Morrison, I knew only a handful of his tunes. I knew “Brown-Eyed Girl,” obviously. John Cougar Mellencamp had done “Wild Night.” “Domino” could be heard on the radio. “Gloria” was covered by the 77s. But there was one more covered by Phil Keaggy. And it may have been may be part of my discovery story (told in part one) and I had just forgotten.
“When Will I Ever Learn to Live In God” was on Keaggy’s Crimson and Blue, which is still a favorite record of mine. That song just blew me away. It was a song that continually swam around in my mind for a long time. Hard to shake, it was. And so I expected it to be among the highlights on this album. But it’s not. It’s great but there are so many great songs, that one doesn’t even make the cut.
One of my favorite moments on this album is in the spoken word piece, “Coney Island.” When he says “yer face” with that definitive Irish way of adding extra syllables – which is similar to where I live in Alabama – it always makes me smile.
The two most popular songs from Avalon Sunset are “Whenever God Shines His Light” and “Have I Told You Lately.” Honestly, neither is favorite of mine. But this is my chance to point out the “You” is God and not a girl.
Felt good to point that out.
Highlights: Coney Island, Orangefield, Daring Night, These Are the Days
My second favorite Van Morrison album and a perfect lead-up to my favorite. What makes this album outstanding apart from the quality of the songs is the violin work. At least what I thought was violin work. There is no violin listed in the liner notes or on the Wikipedia page. Whatever.
There are two things about this album you need to know:
- “In the Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll” may take you a few listens to get used to. The spoken word parts by Irish poet, Paul Durcan are…well…a little odd. But once you give it the time it deserves, it’s a musical gift.
- Van is not pro-Enlightenment thinking here. Somehow, fans have missed this. It’s as if some have not paid attention to the part where he sings, “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.”
This is an amazing album from start to finish. Although, some have called Enlightenment a companion to Avalon Sunset, I disagree. This is more akin to his next offering.
Highlights: Every note.
Hymns to the Silence: 1991
In part one I explained the significance of Hymns to the Silence. This is without question my favorite Van album. And one of my favorite albums period.
My friend Jay told me Van was in pursuit of beauty and this album was the first to convince me he knew what he was talking about.
I once had the opportunity to buy it on vinyl for $10 in mint condition and I hesitated and then it was gone. Someone else bought it. I can’t even talk about it much more than that because it is still pretty painful. And embarrassing that I hesitated.
Singling out any song would be like choosing a favorite child. I elevate this album and the songs that make it up to the level of literature in my life. I love this album so much, I rarely recommend it because I do not want to hear that someone does not care for it.
I listened to this album throughout an eight day road trip across the country to California. On that road trip, I saw him live in New Orleans. All of those events and the places I saw and the people I met are all wrapped up in these songs, apparently never to be separated.
It’s a double album and we are doubly blessed to have it.
Highlights: What? Do you want me to choose which of my kids I love more?