Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece
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Though Veedon Fleece has become a critical success over the years, somehow the album still gets overlooked by most fans, or rarely mentioned as one of his best. Never, for example, have I discussed Van Morrison with friends or Stylus compatriots, always coming back to that barfront question (top-three, now gimme), and been told Veedon Fleece made the count. I think much of this is the almost monolithic presence of its closest cousin in Van’s catalogue, the masterpiece of smoky Celtic folk, brickwall jazz, and R&B, Astral Weeks. If you’re looking for that aural cushioning, and you have to choose one come fireside, it’s likely it’ll be Astral Weeks. Which is too bad. In many ways, in both sound and temperament, Veedon Fleece is not only every bit the record of its slightly daunting elder, but a companion piece that bookended his classic 1968-1974 period.
Coming on the heels of a long tour with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a live set from which made up his 1974 release It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and a divorce from his wife, Janet Planet, Morrison returned to Belfast and began working on what would become Veedon Fleece. Veedon was an anachronism of sorts for Van at the time, at least viewed in light of the rumbling, bottom-fed R&B for which he’d become known on his albums from the early ‘70s like Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, and Tupelo Honey. The first signs of a reversion to the rustic spirituality of his earliest solo material could be heard on 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, with its loose, extended song structures, contemplative lyricism (“Listen to the Lion,” “Redwood Tree,” “Almost Independence Day”), and almost complete lack of radio-friendly material (barring perhaps “Jackie Wilson Said [I’m In Heaven When You Smile]”). But it was with Veedon Fleece, and perhaps with his move from California back to Ireland, that Van finally nailed again the hypnotic, meditative quality of Astral Weeks.
Opening with the dim piano-led “Fair Play,” Veedon Fleece makes its claims on you early, while also announcing a return to Van’s Celtic past. Van’s back to fireside mode, a still hand and calm voice as he reclines against the song’s out-of-the-weather feel, spouting strange about taking in architecture with his mind, Oscar Wilde, and Thoreau. Where Astral Weeks made heathen’s psalms out of Van’s back-bed poesie and gorgeous, almost smotheringly atmospheric productions, Veedon Fleece is a bit more restrained. Its instrumental weight is never as engulfing, nor are its moods as suffocating as Astral’s can sometimes be. It lets you keep your head, but makes you accountable for that allowance, and often it’s that much more striking to hear Van up close, clear and pained, against a similar backdrop of velvety R&B, blues, and Irish lullabies.
Both “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” and “Streets of Arklow” revel in a sense of sustaining yourself through something cold and ruinous via a warmth barely sufficient to keep your hands white, where it’s really only the whiskey burn keeping things limber. Structurally, they’re built on daybreak piano parts held up straight only by stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, and Jim Rothermel’s prominent flute and recorder parts, which provide their lone stretches of color. Van’s making dense, jazzy pushes out of a breakup, seemingly solace bound through Irish outlaw tales and shards of his own past, repeated motifs both lyrical and atmospheric. It’s as though he’d spread the regret, nostalgia, and soft pull from without from “T.B. Sheets” into every cut here, and taken away the blues by taking away the blues. Likewise, one of the album’s must-hears, “Cul de Sac,” wants its end of the roads and its everlastings in the same breath, building a high-blues piano roll, prominent bass saunter, and lead guitar part into an ode to the still snapshot moment that comes before a change of course.
Fortunately, on occasion Van shakes that sifting, wet-sand feel slightly, if never reaching the tumbling basslines and spring songs he’d mastered on previous albums. With the black gallop of “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River,” he maintains the album’s doleful sensibility without sacrificing its need to eventually move around a little bit. He’s getting all retrofitted with his New Ageism on us again, William Blake and the Eternals looking for the Veedon Fleeces, sure thing Van, but then, there are some cool flute showdowns and great heavings and clearings of Nathan Rubin’s strings. He’s setting a mood down like a meal, remembering that small palate cleanser, and this is the first. Of course, the best, and the most immediately memorable song on Veedon, is “Bulbs.” Coming about as close to laying down a groove as he does on the album, the song quickly makes dust of its acoustic start, leaping headstrong into a Waylon Jennings-style bass-roll, rump-heavy and plush, pianos shimmering and fingerdense. Van’s singing again of weekends instead of cul-de-sacs and walks remembered after the close, and, thankfully, he’s back to his “la-la-la-la-la-la”s for a moment.
But Morrison had just been through a divorce, and Veedon Fleece is a break-up album of sorts. Just like every drunken broken-with starts the night out flirting and ends up whining about his ex, every such album ends where it began: wistful and melancholic. Van’s so close to the mic on “Come Here My Love” he could pluck the strings with his chest hairs, tin-masking his pain behind mystification, Belfast space-talk, and an acoustic. As “Country Fair”’s hushed recorder and guitar arrangement finishes the album like an early frost, snake-patterned ambient noises just audible beneath, you can hear Van retreat into the song’s extended outro, humming and moaning to himself, but mainly listening to the sound of this new hush he’s created. And that new hush would draw itself out. Veedon Fleece was the last record Morrison recorded for three years, saying in interviews he needed to get away from music completely for a while. While, as I said, it’s never gained Astral’s reputation as a record-collection cornerstone, Veedon is the kind of album, so frothy and thick, that requires silence when it’s over. You have to turn the stereo off for a while. To me, that’s the better explanation for Morrison’s three-year absence. He’d just finished Veedon Fleece.