by Clive James

THE NEW Van Morrison is sweet stuff, the smoothest. Those of us old enough to have children can use it to calm them down. Morrison is in clear, agile and radiant voice; melody abounds; the arrangements — tending to a cocktail-rock blend of toothpicks tapping on snares and cymbals, water-drop guitars, iced keyboards and milky vibes — suggest that we might be entering into an equivalent of the MJQ phase that overtook jazz in the Fifties. At this rate we'll be back to dinner by candlelight, tuxedos and formal gowns. Already, as I play this album, I can hear its pretty piano-fills and weeping guitars echoing along college corridors from rooms where the fresh wave of undergraduates are brushing their hair a hundred times each morning and keeping their embroidered jeans as clean as a summer sky.

Morrison has done half a dozen albums for Warners alone. I don't pretend to be familiar with this mass of material, but at various stages of his career I have heard him on radio, gladly confirmed the attractiveness that is claimed for his singing and composing, and been slightly puzzled about the importance claimed for his lyric-writing. Since everybody who has bought the previous albums will buy this one anyway — and they will be foolish not to, for it is eminently playable — perhaps it's a good time to scrutinise Morrison's lyrics and decide whether there really is anything outstanding about them. It will be understood, I hope, that I am not trying to prescribe universal standards for rock lyrics — just saying that the men who are widely regarded as being good at writing them should actually be good at writing them.

There is a song on Side One called Wild Children. We find ourselves embarked on a promising theme:

     We were the War Children
     Born 1945

Speaking as a war child born in 1939, I was very keen to hear this theme developed: clear perceptions of what it was like to grow up through a certain historical period constitute material that rock ought to thrive on.

     When all the soldiers came marching home
     Love looks in their eye

Well, not all the soldiers came marching home — but the song is under way, and now we know how the singer got born. Second Stanza coming up.

     Tennessee Tennessee Williams
     Let your inspiration flow
     Let it be around when we hear the sound
     When the spring time rivers flow, when the rivers flow.

If the writer is going to select from his memories, he has to select something — but why, precisely, Tennessee Williams? If Williams was the first artist the young Morrison responded to, we'd like to hear about it. But Williams' impact on the young Morrison is exactly what we don't hear about: the feelings of the past aren't gone into. All we get is the invocation of Williams' name in relation to these springtime rivers, which are flowing in the present. What has Tennessee Williams specifically to do with springtime rivers? One would like some indication of the connection, especially in the light of the fact that the lack of connection isn't in the least resonant. There's nothing mysterious about it. It just looks like a sloppy throwing together of the first ideas that came into the writer's head. But wait: let's see what else is in the memory bag. Next Stanza.

     Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando
     Standing with their heads bowed on the side
     Crying like a baby thinking about the time
     James Dean took that fatal ride, took that ride

The Brando/Steiger reference is obviously to the famous scene in On The Waterfront, and it's disappointing that Morrison thinks a mere mention of it is enough to add to his song's store of properties. James Dean, too, gets roped in with small ceremony. And that, folks, is your lot. The next stanza gives you Tennessee Williams again, and the clinching stanza is a re-run of Steiger, Brando and Dean. We're left with the feeling that not all that much has happened to the writer in the long haul from 1945 to 1973. Some point might have been made about his impoverishment of recollection, but one suspects that the writer didn't find anything wrong with it. The stated theme — the war children — hasn't been treated. Professionally, one's first reaction is that the writer can't concentrate.

Confirmation of this view obtrudes throughout the album. A line in 'Warm Love' ('This inspiration's got to be on the flow') is a sure tip-off that Morrison places absolute trust in bunging down anything that occurs to him. Suggestions that Dylan did the same can effectively be countered by pointing out that Morrison's faculty of invention, whatever his admirers say, is not in the same league as Dylan's. Morrison's poeticising shows clear signs of strain even at its most casual: a line like 'The sky is crying and it's time to go home' is strictly church-magazine stuff, and highly typical.

The blues originated in the compulsion to reveal anguish, the distortions of the sung word transmitting the emotion from which it sprang. Morrison, who has mastered a formidable range of blues effects, uses distortion to furbish triteness. In concealing artlessness with art, Morrison merely follows the trend of most of the sophisticated rock in recent years. The result is technique deprived of expressive force, and a general pleasantness of effect which leaves you convinced that prettiness is the enemy of the beautiful. Hard Nose The Highway is a wonderfully accomplished album which will do everything for you except engage your mind.

Cream, September 1973
© Clive James

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