There is no two ways about it. This period has more just “good enough” albums than any other period. I know there are people who will argue for the next period as being his worst, but they are wrong. While this stretch of albums has one magnificent album and some good ones, there are two that are just hard to listen to. Don’t get me wrong, I own them. But I never listen to them.
I take that back.
Every now and again, I will take them out, dust them off and try them out. And I am always disappointed. Oh well, let’s get started.
Too Long In Exile: 1993
If you go and read the fan pages and forums, your expectations for this album will be low. Many people do not like it. And that is hard for me to understand. I love this album so much and not only because it’s one of the first albums of his I bought back in ’96.
The guitars. The sax. John Lee. Georgie Fame. Man, this is such a great understated album. If you want to know what it sounds like, look at the cover. That scene is perfect for this album. So many great Chicago bluesy songs that sound like a summer night’s stroll with the “L” passing overhead. And you need a strong drink.
“Wasted Years” with John Lee Hooker is so beautiful it hurts.
Highlights: Too Long In Exile, Lonely Avenue/You Give Me Nothing But The Blues, Till We Get The Healing Done, Wasted Years
Days Like This: 1995
Back in the 1996, when I started listening to Van, I was waiting tables at a “meat and three” in small town Alabama. Surrounded by fans of Garth Brooks, I knew no one who listened to Van Morrison. Not one person. But the Muzak station played “Days Like This” at least once every shift. It was as if God was saying, “I know how hard it is to be alone in your love of this music.”
So I have a soft spot for this album. But this is not a great album. It’s really good at times but never great. This is the beginning of Van making some really good jazzy albums that are never bad but lack that transcendent feel. Some great moments to be sure.
Some consider “Ancient Highway” to be a high water mark for Van. I disagree if only for the line, “And I’ll be praying to my higher self/Don’t let me down, keep my feet on the ground.” It is pure arrogance to pray to your higher self, regardless of what religion you ascribe to. It’s a terrible line in a song that could have great.
Highlights: Perfect Fit, You Don’t Know Me, Days Like This
How Long Has This Been Going On? 1995
Before my wife and I were really dating, we were out together one night. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but trust me on this. I was interested. She was extremely hesitant. But I think my decision, as we drove across town together, to listen to this album was genius. Everyone else was listening to Matchbox 20 and Live and Pearl Jam. But I could not stop listening to this album because it reminded me of the Jazz my dad would listen to when I was growing up. It’s not the kind of album you actively listen to. But it’s perfect Jazz for a party or for romancing the girl who in five months will be your fiancé.
Highlights: I Will Be There, Moondance. All Saint’s Day
Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison: 1996
I do not like this album at all.
The Healing Game: 1997
This is a magnificent album. And not just because it has quite possibly my favorite song by Van Morrison.
Every lover of music, will have those musical moments when you really do feel like you have transcended where you are. And maybe even who you are. When you are. You hear a song and then every thing you hear after it is an invasion. Nothing compares.
Before we moved into the house we live in now, we rented a house around the corner. I could sit out in the front yard and look out over trees and see clear to the next mountain over. It was my habit to sit out there, smoke my pipe and only the sounds of Van could be heard. I made a playlist called “Smoking With Van” and I made sure it ended with “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”
That is also the name of chapter seven in The Wind In The Willows. I assume that chapter had the same effect on him it had on me.
Often I have wished the album ended with this song. Regardless, this album stands out in this period and is one the heights of his career. This is why a deluxe edition was just released. And I strongly recommend the deluxe version if only because Live at Montreux 17 July 1997 is on disc three. If that show was released separately, it would be among his very best live albums.
Highlights: Rough God Goes Riding, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Healing Game
Back On Top: 1999
I forget this album exists. Which may tell you something about it. But really, Back On Top is pretty good with a number of highlights. The reviews were never very good. Rolling Stone called it “one Monet and nine Norman Rockwells.” The one Monet was “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” which I agree is the standout track. But Norman Rockwell was still pretty powerful in his own right.
Highlights: Goin’ Down Geneva, Philosopher’s Stone, When the Leaves Come Falling Down
You Win Again: 2000
I wish I liked this album. On paper, I should like this album.
Van + Linda Gail Lewis (sis of Jerry Lee) + country/rockabilly music.
But I still do not like this album. I don’t dislike this album, though.
Highlights: I wish there was one. Really, I do