In a run of overlooked records, there is one absolute sleeper in Van Morrison’s catalog. Coming in at the end of an era – a string of releases that showcased an artist in constant transition, attaining pinnacle after pinnacle, and pushing his craft into a realm that, while never expected, certainly doesn’t surprise the close observer of Van’s arc – is a release that only the most adherent of followers seem to dare give a spin. As if perfected, Van leans in on the methods established on No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and Sense of Wonder, trading spiritual loftiness for down-to-earth conviction and subject matter that tends to focus on the absolutes of the human condition instead of the singular mystic vision of the artist.
But something interesting is happening on Poetic Champions Compose. Much of Van’s output toed the line between the sublime and the grittier history of jazz and the blues. Here, we find the artist fully embracing the easier side of things. Softening the edges of his sound much more so than any other record prior. The classic formula of a great Van album – the distillation of musical spectacle and the commitment to maintaining the poetic traditions of literary greats – remains. But on this offering, our series of tunes apply the technique, but overlook the standard ingredients.
Typical of the late-Guru era, Van treats the listeners to some solely instrumental tracks on PCC. “Spanish Steps” opens the first side and the singer wails into his saxophone, instantly recognizable that it could only be him playing. The tune is mellow, not too adventurous, and it may go on a little longer than necessary, but still functions as the perfect preamble for the damn-near perfect side which it begins. “The Mystery” happens to be a quintessential Van number. Every element comes together to deliver on the level of “Beautiful Vision,” “Cul de Sac,” or “St. Dominic’s Preview.” Morrison plays around with some call and response from his choir. With strings acting as counterpoint to the refrains, Van stirs up a slurry of Baroque-pop meeting New Age soul. One couldn’t find a single issue with “Queen of the Slipstream,” as the artist revisits one of his favorite turns of phrase. Fretless bass, harp, and a plucked string section fill every space of the curvatures shaped by the backbeat groove. The side isn’t all lush, however, as “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” paints Van as stoic balladeer. The performance remains almost cold all the way through as he delivers his lament; wrapping up both the tune and the side in solace.
Side two again begins with an instrumental. The more interesting “Celtic Excavation” lacks the raw passion of “Spanish Steps” but more than makes up for it in its ability to keep the listener involved in the track. It is on this side that we find Van fully entering the ‘Adult Contemporary’ world. “Someone Like You” is a full-on love song, directed not at some abstract idea, ancient poet, or the natural world, but rather another living, breathing human. The moment acts as a weak link. Musically, right in the vein of the era, but from the writing standpoint Van seems to falter when speaking of the concrete world. As an artist, he operates more organically on the higher planes of consciousness. The following “Alan Watts Blues” and “Give Me My Rapture” offer an upbeat turn. Toes may tap along, but the mentioned rapture – as typically conjured on Van’s finest moments – seems to be missing as Van succumbs to the questionable production practices that so many heirloom artists of the 60s placed their faith in as they trudged through the 1980s. There is the overwhelmingly catchy, but still overwhelmingly ‘easy listening’ of “Did Ye Get Healed.” It offers a bit more substance but fails to transcend the barrier of lackluster that Morrison has constructed between the two sides of this record. For this, Poetic Champions Compose remains an oddity in the catalog—one of the few Van records with such a divide in quality and overall feel.
Switching up the molecular makeup of the songs on PCC, Van still manages to deliver an album that is not too far off from the expected fare in this era of his career. It’s here that we have to ask, however, can you have too much of a good thing? Obviously, we’re leaning on no. The music of 80s Van remains steadfast and equally interesting on every release, with the artist reaching into the depths of his psyche to offer a little light about the reality in which he is placed, and even as the lofty heights of the early records of the decade become more grounded in the reality which we share with the singer, those truths only hit closer to home. Still, this is an artist that has remained committed to constantly remaking himself since those grade school recording with Them in the early 60s. With the abrupt and near-out of place second side on Poetic Champions Compose, a more significant transition seems unavoidable. We have to wonder about what is coming next? With this phase possibly having run its course – arguably the longest period of sustained development of a particular sound across a now three-decade career – the drive to change course would surely be meeting the headwinds of familiarity. | j rooney