Photo by Chris Walter / WireImage
Photo by Chris Walter / WireImage

Van Morrison’s Catalog Is 40 Albums Deep, Here’s Where to Dig In

Diving into the music of one of the world's most iconic artists is a daunting task. Here's a handy guide.
December 19, 2018, 3:30pm

Back in October, Van Morrison raised a few eyebrows when he unveiled the cover of The Prophet Speaks, his 40th studio album. The image features Morrison with his hand on the shoulder of a creepy ventriloquist dummy as the two pose in front of a microphone. They're dressed in coordinating outfits, they've got the same hair color, and they're staring straight at each other as the singer puts a finger to his lips, urging the eerie doll to keep whatever horrors are floating around inside his head to himself.

It's a supremely weird move—especially for a non-ventriloquist—but in the grand scheme of all things Van Morrison, it is but a blip. We'll be talking about masterworks like Astral Weeks and Moondance until the end of time. His stunning lyricism and iconic voice have earned him his spot in the canon. His storied career spans over 50 years—we do not need to linger on the image of the legendary singer/songwriter staring down and shushing a puppet.

And yet, in a weird way, that image is the perfect representation of Morrison's career. He's tackled and excelled in more genres than most artists dream of—folk, soul, jazz, blues, pop, garage rock—so the idea that he's some sort of chameleon is a natural one. But no matter what he does or how he does it, he remains true to himself. A Van Morrison song—no matter what kind of Van Morrison song it is—is always, ultimately, a Van Morrison song. He's not a ventriloquist, filtering his work through some prop. He'll handle the singing, thank you very much, and the puppet can shut the hell up.

The man once talk-sang, "Rave on, Walt Whitman, nose down in wet grass," so it's probably not too much of a leap to assume that he took the poet's "Song of Myself" to heart ("I am large, I contain multitudes."). He made the music he wanted to make, even when it wasn't what was expected of him, with little regard for how it might be received. Because there are so many facets to him, it can be difficult to know where to begin, so we've put together five different ways to dive in.

So you want to get into: Van the Man?

Van Morrison's career is full of moments he zigged when he was expected to zag, resulting in dozens of potential entry points to his catalog. If you're new to his music, the first thing you need to do is sit down and watch his legendary performance of "Caravan" from The Last Waltz.

The high kicks and the bedazzled maroon suit are what most people dwell on, but no matter how many times you watch it, you can always find something new to love about it: The way the tip of his tongue determinedly creeps out of the corner of his mouth while he's kicking and the horns swell. The way he growls "turn up your RAH-dio." The way he hits the T sound extra hard for emphasis as he asks you to "switch on your electric light." That little wobble, post-mic drop, as he triumphantly makes his way offstage with one last reach to the heavens and loses his balance.

We marvel at it the way we do Michael Jordan's flu game. Morrison, who reportedly had been suffering from stage fright that night, looks like he just got kicked out of a bar and wandered onstage—yet he somehow manages to dig deep and deliver one of the best performances of his career.

Of course, if the soul-man, eggplant-suit Van Morrison is the only one you know, you've been misled. It's a well he’s tapped surprisingly infrequently, and perhaps that's why it's so damn effective. But, then again, that soulfulness runs through all of his work, even if it lacks the showmanship of "Caravan" or the radio-friendly appeal of a pop hit like "Brown Eyed Girl." It's not always overt, but it's always there.

Playlist: "Brown Eyed Girl" / "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" / "Domino" / "Caravan" / "Wild Nights" / "Moondance" / "Call Me Up in Dreamland" / "Gloria" (by Them) / "T.B. Sheets" / "Days Like This" / "Glad Tidings"

So you want to get into: Van the Nostalgist?

He's notorious for being cagey in interviews about the meanings and inspirations behind his songs, but even when the specifics are unclear, there's often a sense of nostalgia—for youth, for bygone eras, for his home country of Northern Ireland—that seeps through into Morrison's work.

Sometimes the connections to his life are obvious, like on 1982's "Cleaning Windows" (about his early days splitting his time between playing music and working as a window cleaner) or "St. Dominic's Preview" a decade earlier, where the window-washing gig crops up again ("Shammy cleaning all the windows / Singing songs about Edith Piaf's soul / And I hear blue strains of no regredior / Across the street from Cathedral Notre Dame") and some homesickness can be detected in his stream-of-consciousness lyrics ("And it's a long way to Buffalo / It's a long way to Belfast city too").

Sometimes he draws inspiration from his childhood but takes some creative liberties, like on the gorgeous "Cyprus Avenue," where the image of a girl in a horse-drawn carriage helps drive home the fact that young Van is an outsider looking in, walking over from the wrong side of the tracks and aspiring to one day live on the posh titular street. On "Kingdom Hall," he pulls from his mother's time as a Jehovah's Witness and imagines dancing and throwing away inhibition at the place of worship, despite the fact that traditionally there aren't dances at such a place.

But whether it's rooted in his own personal experience or not, there's a fondness for the past that keeps cropping up in Morrison's work and, thanks to his evocative lyrics, touching people—regardless of whether they grew up down the street in Belfast or a world away.

Playlist: "Cyprus Avenue" / "Cleaning Windows" / "Kingdom Hall" / "St. Dominic's Preview" / "And It Stoned Me" / "Redwood Tree" / "Irish Heartbeat" / "Everyone" / "Street Choir"

So you want to get into: Van the Romantic?

There's a reason that over 50 years into his career, a Google search of "Van Morrison wedding" yields approximately 16,800,000 results. No one writes a love song quite like him, and classics like "Sweet Thing," "Tupelo Honey," and "Crazy Love" have become first-dance staples.

And while the sweet, often-poetic connections between lovers take centerstage on a lot of these Morrison songs, they're often set against a pastoral backdrop. Nature is another recurring theme in his work, and he frequently uses it to heighten the imagery in his most romantic songs, putting the beauty of the object of his affection right up there with the earth's majesty.

Take, for example, "Warm Love," where he opens with "Look at the ivy on the old clinging wall / Look at the flowers and the green grass so tall / It's not a matter of when push comes to shove / It's just the hour on the wings of a dove / That's just warm love," or "Have I Told You Lately," where he likens his love to the morning sun. "Sweet Thing" sees him drinking "the cool, clear water for to quench my thirst" and walking and talking "in gardens all misty and wet with rain." On "Crazy Love," he runs to his love "like a river's song."

Sometimes, though, he opts for a simple, universal sentiment, like on "Someone Like You" ("someone like you makes it all worthwhile / someone like you keeps me satisfied"). It's not as flowery, but somehow, in Van's hands, it's just as effective.

Playlist: "Sweet Thing" / "Tupelo Honey" / "Have I Told You Lately" / "Someone Like You" / "Crazy Love" / "Beside You" / "Warm Love" / "Ballerina" / "Bright Side of the Road" / "Wavelength" / "Real Real Gone"

So you want to get into: Van the Poet?

Pretty much all of his masterpiece Astral Weeks belongs in this category, but it's perhaps the title track that best encapsulates the poetic nature of Morrison's work, as he sings, "If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dream / Where immobile steel rims crack / And the ditch in the back roads stop / Could you find me?"

I mean, c'mon.

But beyond stunning classics like that track or "Madame George," Morrison's literary influence can be felt on the sprawling "Summertime in England," which clocks in at over 15 minutes and name-checks T.S. Eliot, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Sometimes the poets even work their way into the song titles, like "Rave On, John Donne" or "Tore Down a la Rimbaud."

More often that not, though, Morrison himself is the poet, delivering spoken-word recitations on "On Hyndford Street" or lamenting fans and journalists' desire for him to give insight into the meaning of his lyrics on "Why Must I Always Explain?" (And with all the lovely imagery he's able to cram into his songs, why should he?)

Playlist: "Astral Weeks" / "Madame George" / "Summertime in England" / "Rave On, John Donne" / "On Hyndford Street" / "Why Must I Always Explain" / "Tore Down a la Rimbaud" / "Streets of Arklow" / "The Way Young Lovers Do"

So you want to get into: Van the Mystic?

Van Morrison has always been a seeker, and spirituality—sometimes of a particular denomination, oftentimes a more general connection to some sort of higher power—routinely crops up in his music.

His Inarticulate Speech of the Heart album gives thanks to L. Ron Hubbard in the liner notes. On "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River," he's searching for the Veedon Fleece, his fictional version of the Holy Grail. "Dweller on the Threshold" pulls from the teachings of theosophist Alice Bailey and Tibetan master Djwal Khul. On "Enlightenment," he paraphrases a Zen saying about chopping wood and carrying water.

Of course, the best-known example of Van's spiritual quest songs is "Into the Mystic," where a sailor's journey to return home to a love interest anchors a tale that's not explicitly about God but nevertheless urges listeners to "let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic." It's a perfect storm of his most common themes—love, nature, divinity, and the combination of the three. Morrison, of course, leaves it open to interpretation, noting that the opening line could be either "We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun" or "We were borne before the wind, all so younger than the sun." Ultimately, he's said, it's "just about being part of the universe"—and, typical of an artist with a catalog like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, what exactly that means is up to you.

Playlist: "Into the Mystic" / "Full Force Gale" / "In the Garden" / "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River" / "Dweller on the Threshold" / "Listen to the Lion" / "Enlightenment" / "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God"