So this year Van Morrison launched the second round of remasters of his back catalog, this time with bonus tracks. It’s a ploy, but it worked on me: it finally got me to start rounding out my Van collection, something I’ve always meant to complete. I’ve really been enjoying discovering some of the records I’d never heard. Recently I picked up 1985’s A Sense Of Wonder.
Astral Weeks and Moondance are not only Van’s best albums, they set the parameters for all of his subsequent work. Ever since them he’s veered between the improvised, ambitiously poetic vision of Astral Weeks, sacrificing accessibility for fidelity to a higher truth, and the composed and arranged conciseness of Moondance, which says you can find a higher truth in the mundane beauties of a great radio song. If you’ve read Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, it’s like what he says about the difference between a horn solo in a jazz number and one in a soul song. Van does both.
Usually he doesn’t do either for a whole album. Your typical Van Morrison album will include several tracks that gesture toward the meditational/celebratory thing—the otherwise very accessible St. Dominic’s Preview has the spatiotemporal journey (not to say trip) of “Listen To The Lion.” By the same token, every one of his albums has at least one—though often only one—track that verges into Moondance territory. A little extra care taken to punch up the melody, hone the lyrics, put the whole thing into a tight little package, make it a song, a record, rather than simply a performance.
Another way of saying this is to say that every Van Morrison album contains at least one song that sounds like a Top 40 hit, even if it wasn’t. Among his many talents the man can write a classic when he wants to, something like “Jackie Wilson Says” or “Wild Night” that’ll just jump out of the radio when it comes on.
Some of these tunes have gotten the acclaim they deserve, but most haven’t. On A Sense Of Wonder the would-be greatest hit (it’s not on any of his compilations) is “A New Kind Of Man,” the last song on the original record. You can hear a clip on Van's official site (which I can't link directly to).
If you’re not familiar with Van’s ‘80s work, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that echoey, slick, New Agey production. There’s almost nobody else I’d endure that for, but somehow Van was able to make it work for him. He’s not ironicizing the plasticity like, say David Bowie (I think) was, he’s just aiming for a pristine, expansive sound, and it works. It works ‘cause he believes it works, I guess. I don’t know.
So get past that and what do you hear? Right off the bat you notice that horn line. That’s what makes the song. It’s one of those great melodic horn lines that nobody bothers to write anymore. And here’s where the pristine production and arrangement begin to make themselves felt—that horn line works in part because of its particular color, the way it’s a soft, melancholy trumpet softened further, mellowed out, by the saxophone doubling it. It’s a nifty arrangement, courtesy of Pee Wee Ellis, Van’s bandleader in the early ‘80s and James Brown’s in the late ‘60s.
The horn line interlocks with some tasty lead guitar licks; lead guitar that started off with almost a country figure, but then gives us some sweet, slashing soul chords. That’s basically the last we’ll hear from the lead guitar, by the way. On rhythm, the guitar continues throughout the track, sometimes in the foreground, but usually in the right channel, in the background. It’s got that clean ‘80s production, but it’s playing a nice little r&b figure. The r&b elements really break out when Van reaches the refrain and the drummer and bassist lock into that little Stax soul-march thing. For the verses the drummer is playing light, on the rim, it sounds like, but in the refrain he gooses it up a bit, and it makes all the difference.
It’s a very careful arrangement, very focused. During the bridge—most of the songs on this album don’t have bridges; the fact that this one does speaks to the amount of craft being brought to bear on it—we get all the backup vocals swelling, the guitars chiming to a crescendo. Real emotional peak time.
Then comes the song’s strangest moment: at the end of the bridge there’s a brief pause, and a little solo bass figure leads us back into the last verse. But the bass is so muted, so weak, that it’s almost a little comical. It has to be, though, because if it was any louder, any funkier, it would upset the balance of the song. This arrangement is all about restraint, all about channeling that r&b energy into those insistent drumbeats during the refrain, not about cutting loose into a bass-led jam. We need to be brought down at this moment, so we can savor again the coolness of the horn line.
Which we do, as Van leads us out of the song.
Oh yeah, Van. Of course none of this would work without him. Imagine some other fixture of mid-‘80s music singing against this backing track. Stylistically it’s right up the alley of any of the resurgent veterans of the period—Clapton, Winwood, Henley, whatever—but any of them would have made it sound fake, antiseptic. Van sings it with just enough fire, just enough husk in his voice, to counterbalance the pristine sound, but without so much of an appearance of effort as to destroy the coolness. He propels the song, but he doesn’t force it. It’s not a sweet vocal, but it’s not a wild one. It’s just right.
That’s ‘cause Van’s the Man.