Van Morrison's Poetry of the Ineffable
Van Morrison's Poetry of the Ineffable
Van Morrison has a new album, Born to Sing: No Plan B. Virtually no one will care, a fact that continues to mystify me as much as the man himself. It is, like the preceding 34 albums, a mix of soulful R&B, jazz, Irish mysticism, and ruminations on love carnal and divine. And, like those other albums, it is wholly original and eccentric, an album that could only have emerged from the fertile mind of Van Morrison.
Those of you who know Morrison casually, who think of him only as the soulful singer of "Moondance" or "Brown Eyed Girl," may be surprised by the evolution of his music since the early 1970s. The hippies claimed him, and he made his best-known music during that era, but he never fit easily into the counter-cultural stereotypes. Brooding, moody, and entirely too devoted to his own unconventional path to fit in with established societal or musical trends, Morrison simply made the music he wanted to make. That music was influential enough to merit his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but much of it since then has been willfully uncommercial, the product of a man who cares not a whit about the prospect of hit singles and awards and accolades. Almost all of it has borne witness to a man on a quest for something deeper and more satisfying than the usual sensual, hedonistic pursuits. That the quest has led him down some unlighted byways and dead ends is undeniable, but few songwriters have documented their spiritual discontent and restlessness as painstakingly or as accurately as Van Morrison.
What Morrison is after—the elusive Muse that he's pursued in a career that dates back to the early 1960s—is the ineffable. By its very definition it's a slippery word, one that is impossible to pin down by creedal statements or doctrinal catechisms, but Morrison has offered a number of clues that outline its general contours. It's the lost sense of innocence and peace that he hearkens back to again and again in his songs about an idyllic childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It's being fully alive to the moment, attuned to the sense of wonder that can break through on even the grayest and most banal of days. It's the untrammeled romanticism of Blake and Coleridge, Wordsworth and Yeats—writers Van Morrison namechecks again and again in his body of work—and the insistence on the supremacy of spiritual experience over theological proposition. By definition, it cannot be named. But it can be sung. And for Morrison, that is the nature of soul music in all the best and most inclusive senses of the term.
It can only be sung. If the album and song titles don't give the game away—Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, The Healing Has Begun, A Sense of Wonder, Beautiful Vision, and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher—then the voice itself is a constant reminder of the primacy of the ineffable in Morrison's worldview. Nowhere is that better illustrated than on "Listen to the Lion," an impossibly idiosyncratic track from his 1972 album St. Dominic's Preview. For more than eleven minutes Van wrestles his lyrics like a dog working a bone, repeating the same phrases over and over in an incantatory prayer; whispering, moaning, cajoling, pleading, and ultimately breaking free of language altogether, soaring off into a scatting, stuttering frenzy, and finally roaring like the lion of the title before settling down again and morphing back to his normal, enigmatic self. I know people who hate the song, who find it annoyingly self-indulgent. But for my money it's the quintessential Van Morrison moment, the most thrilling and thrillingly strange soul music, in all sense of the term, ever recorded. It is the sound of a man casting off all earthly bounds and battering down the gates of heaven.