Forget Rod the Mod. Let’s talk about Van the Man. I don’t listen to him for months at a time. And then I remember. And I’m always glad I do. I remembered last night.
Here is the sort of magical alchemy that happens when I put on his records (and yes, these are records for me; you can’t beat vinyl). I come home from work, dog tired, brain dead, I mumble incoherently to Kate and Rachel for a few minutes, then I retire to the den. I put on, in quick succession, St. Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, and Tupelo Honey. I don’t play the entire records. I only play the title tracks from these three albums. At some point I start whooping, because this is what Van does for me. The music critic’s gotta scream and holler. It’s all good. And I emerge fifteen minutes later re-energized, invigorated, ready to face the whole suburban tableau, ‘cause I got soul.
I’d say that the first eight solo albums are essential. That would be Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and Veedon Fleece. It’s an incredible run. Van is at the top of his vocal powers here, which means, in my opinion, that he’s simply the greatest, most soulful singer of the rock ‘n roll era. He makes masterful use of strings and horns. And he generates a few dozen masterpieces along the way. A Greatest Hits album really cannot do justice to the scope of the greatness here. You really do need them all. But if forced to choose, I’d probably go with St. Dominic’s Preview, which contains several straightforward R&B/Irish soul classics, and one very unstraightforward, weird-as-hell song called “Listen to the Lion” in which Van froths at the mouth for upwards of eleven minutes, repeating his lyrics like rosary beads until he enters what surely sounds like a trance-like state and simply starts, well, roaring like a lion. I love it. I know people who hate it. But I think it’s the strangest and greatest singing I’ve ever heard.
After the first eight, it’s spotty. The albums I’d outright avoid are as follows: A Period of Transition (1977), Too Long in Exile (1992), Days Like These (1993), A Night in San Francisco (1994). None of these are terrible, but they do sound like Van is going through the motions at times. The latter is a live album in which Van turns over the vocal duties to various backup singers. It sounds like a Las Vegas Revue. You’ve always wanted to hear some unknown backup singer sing “Moondance,” right?
At the peak of his commercial success, Van chucked it all away to follow his Muse. I respect him for that, but it hasn’t always led to the most approachable music. There are moments of greatness everywhere, but also moments of headstrong rants against the music industry (Van’s favorite target) and moments so mystically strange that they threaten to float away into the ether. For the past 25 years Van has been obsessed with childhood and childhood memory, revisiting the haunts of his youth in Belfast, pursuing communion with God in orthodox and unorthodox ways. Don’t come looking for creedal truths, but I respect his dogged pursuit of God even as I scratch my head at some of the directions he’s turned. Some of the highlights: Common One (1980), in which Van rants about T.S. Eliot and William Blake for fifteen minutes at a time, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1982), one of his most beautiful and mystical albums, Irish Heartbeat (1987), his wonderful collaboration with The Chieftains, and Avalon Sunset (1989), a collection of fine love songs. His last four albums – Down the Road, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, Magic Time, and Pay the Devil – represent a return to the more straightforward R&B/folk of his early albums, but with slightly diminished vocal powers. It’s not a big deal, because slightly diminished Van is still very, very good indeed.
I do love his music, and, along with Dylan and Al Green and Bruce Cockburn, Van probably comes as close to Musical Hero status as anyone in my life. I’ve never seen him live, and I want to very much. He doesn’t tour much anymore, rarely in the U.S. and never in Ohio, so Kate (another big Van fan) and I have tossed around the idea that for our upcoming 25th anniversary we’ll simply go wherever Van is. Hopefully he’ll sing his own songs and not turn them over to the backup singers. These are the things we do for love, love, love, crazy love.