After fronting the Belfast band Them, who pounded out a sweaty brand of r&b-based rock n' roll, Van Morrison banged out some solo singles for Bert Berns' Bang Records, the most notable of which was the classic "Brown Eyed Girl" (recommended listening: the 2-cd The Story Of Them Featuring Van Morrison and The Bang Masters, respectively). When Berns released an album (Blowin' Your Mind) without his consent it began Morrison's longstanding distrust of the music business, and when Berns died Van joined Warner Bros., where he immediately delivered this amazing album, which defies description or complete comprehension. Recorded in a single whirlwind 48 hour session, Astral Weeks is simply one of the greatest albums of any kind ever created. Upon first listen this might not be obvious, as Van does away with standard song structures and immediate accessibility, instead conceiving the album as an entire entity whose otherworldly intensity and magical air of mystery reveals hidden riches with repeat introductions. Musically mixing together Celtic folk with American jazz and pop, Morrison had the benefit of working with stellar jazz musicians such as Connie Kay (drums), Richard Davis (bass), Jay Berliner (classical guitar), and John Payne (flute, soprano saxophone), who crafted the delicately textured melodies behind which Van The Man delivers a vocal performance for the ages. Van's poetic, stream of consciousness lyrics are supposed to comprise some sort of song cycle, but like most of Bob Dylan (who likewise benefited from some stellar performances from unsung heroes in his backing bands) at his best, this album is all the more special for its inscrutability, as I myself revel in the evocative images of Van's reminisces about "Madame George" and the rest of the gang down on "Cyprus Avenue" without really understanding any of it, or necessarily wanting to. No, this album is more about an elusive magical quality than anything else, even songs, despite the fact that some of these songs are absolutely spectacular. For example, there's the title track, which has an airy bass/flute led melody and arguably my favorite Van (or anybody, for that matter) vocal ever (I can hear him singing "there you go, there you go" in my head right now), while "Sweet Thing," with it's almost hooky string arrangement, is the closest thing here to an accessible pop melody (it was later covered by The Waterboys, among others). "Cyprus Avenue" is another highlight whose instruments (acoustic guitar, harpsichord, bass, strings, flute, drums) flutter about as Van looks back at what he himself describes as "a mystical place," while "The Way Young Lovers Do" sees Van at his most poetic and romantic. The song, which was later covered by spiritual successor Jeff Buckley, is the only really rocking song on the album, ironic given that the album always appears on "greatest rock albums of all-time" polls. Love the trumpet solo too, but this song and every other song here takes a backseat to "Madame George," a 9-minute epic that even Van himself (a notorious crank pot) likes. Again, I'll let others rack their brains for an interpretation, as Van allegedly waxes poetic about a lovelorn drag queen and other assorted losers, but to me this song's magic (and yes, magic is the right word) is all about its mystical atmosphere. The strings on the song actually sound like they're weeping, and Van soulfully sings like a man who knows true pain, despite the fact that he was only 23 years old when this album was recorded. OK, I'll relent and suggest that this is probably because the song is really about outgrowing certain friendships and moving on, something that Van was likely experiencing at the time (having left Them and pursuing the nomadic lifestyle of a rock n' roller). You see, this album isn't that inscrutable, but most of the songs here are open to interpretation. Perhaps "Beside You," "Ballerina," and "Slim Slow Slider" fail to match the five aforementioned songs, but again Van's mesmerizing vocals (i.e. "you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out") make them well worth hearing, as his vocal sweeps and swooshes dash about his brilliantly poetic wordplay. Simply put, Astral Weeks, Morrison's most magnificent and fervent flight of fancy, is a spellbindingly intense effort that takes you away to a special place, and despite its often-bleak subject matter it offers an uplifting, spiritual listening experience that makes me feel good whenever I hear it. Easily ensconced among my top five favorite albums of all-time, Astral Weeks is a one of a kind listening experience that deserves to endure forever.
Moondance (Warner Bros. ’70) Rating: A
Following on the heels of Astral Weeks, a masterpiece neglected during its time that has since gone on to be regarded as an all-time classic, Moondance is (amazingly enough) an equally assured though far different creation. Showcasing his rhythm & blues influences while still retaining his mystical bent, Moondance adds effortlessly catchy pop hooks while working horns into the mix brilliantly, making it another vintage Van Morrison effort. The album also made him a commercially viable artist after the "failure" of Astral Weeks, and many of these songs, particularly on the flawless first side (arguably the single greatest rock n' roll side ever), still achieve regular airplay on classic rock radio. “And It Stoned Me” begins the album with a relaxed, confidently soulful pop rock song whose earthy ambiance echoed his Woodstock neighbors in The Band, while the jazzy title track is a swinging supper club classic that introduced the word fantabulous into the lexicon. Songs don't get any sexier than "Crazy Love," whose romantic atmosphere, helped along by a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and low-key gospel backing, could melt the coldest of hearts, while "Caravan" captures Morrison at a joyously upbeat peak, with unforgettable "la la las" being the song's most memorable characteristic. Finishing side one with a flourish, “Into The Mystic” is another classic piece that many feel is the fullest fruition of Morrison’s visionary genius (even if its catchy horns rip off Otis Redding's "Mr Pitiful"). Alas, after such consistent excellence there was but one way to go, and side two is predictably less impressive, with only "Brand New Day," a beautifully optimistic soul ballad with gospel backing vocals, matching the quality of side one. Which isn't to suggest that side two is bad; quite the contrary, as every song here is totally enjoyable, if in a comparatively lightweight way. For example, "Come Running" is a jaunty piano and horn driven ditty, while “These Dreams Of You” is a melodic keyboard, bass, and sax-led sing along. Rounding out the track listing, "Everyone," notable for its prominent clavinet and flute, is also catchy and fun (it was memorably featured along with the closing credits of the movie The Royal Tenenbaums), while "Glad Tidings" provides a jazzy feel good finale with vocal hooks aplenty. Anyway, needless to say Moondance was a much different proposition than Astral Weeks, which I find more rewarding but which is much less immediately accessible and asks far more from the listener. By contrast, Moondance, a much more song-based collection, is simply one of the most easily likeable albums ever. Indeed, I don't know anybody who doesn't at least like this warmly inviting album, as its fairly straightforward verse chorus verse structures and simple, singable melodies are perfect for any possible circumstance.
His Band And Street Choir (Warner Bros. ’70) Rating: B+
Coming on the heels of two all-time classics, this album was bound to be somewhat disappointing. It’s not even a fair comparison, really, since this is a far less ambitious album that doesn’t even attempt to compete with those early benchmarks. Besides, His Band And Street Choir is still a highly enjoyable effort but in a much more modest vein, as Van ditches deep meanings and the search for spiritual transcendence to express simple, often joyous human emotions. This is best exemplified on catchy, upbeat songs such as "Domino" (Van's biggest hit ever at #9, the spirit of New Orleans is all over this breezy, brassy tribute to The Fat Man), "Give Me A Kiss" (a somewhat slight and silly yet fun ode to new wife Janet Planet), "Call Me Up In Dreamland" (notable for its catchy sing along chorus), and "Blue Money" (a minor hit, this somewhat irritating but impossibly infectious ditty is easily recognizable by its wordless chorus and inspired trumpet riffs in the background). Indeed, horns are all over this album, which isn't surprising given that Van further accentuates his r&b roots, while another notable feature of the album is the (primarily) female, gospel-ish backing vocals by The Street Choir. True to form, Van delivers a couple of prime ballads with "Crazy Face" (a supremely soulful song that's highlighted by its somewhat off putting but surprisingly effective saxophone solo) and "I'll Be Your Lover, Too" (a sparse, mostly successful attempt to briefly return to the intensity of Astral Weeks), but other tracks are atypical. For example, "I've Been Working" can best be described as a bluesy ad hoc jam session that shows off the tightness of His Band, while "Virgo Clowns" is subtly enticing, in large part due to some delicately plucked acoustic guitar. A personal favorite, "Gypsy Queen" is a softly sung soul ballad that nods to The Impressions, and though the album falters towards the end ("Sweet Jannie," "If I Ever Needed Someone"), "Street Choir" provides a fine finale that sees Van in soulful storyteller mode. In short, these upbeat tales of romance should be easy for anybody to relate to and enjoy, but the simplistic lyrics (and song structures) lack Van's customary poetry, and as such this is a more lightweight listen than one expects from Van The Man in his prime. Still, a seemingly effortless groove and Van's knack for easy going melodies makes His Band And Street Choir a successful showcase of Van’s sunnier side.
Tupelo Honey (Warner Bros. ’71) Rating: A-
A highly pastoral outing that reflects the picture of domestic bliss on the album’s cover, a happily married Van is missing the questing spirit that makes his best albums so transcendent, but even relatively minor Morrison still produces major enjoyment. The soulful rocker “Wild Night” (a hit 23 years later when covered by John Mellencamp and Me'Shell NdegeOcello) and the sublime title track are the instant classics here, the latter in particular being a timeless romantic ballad (and who here hasn't sung along to the "she's an angel" backing vocal?) that served as my good friend Lori's wedding song (yeah, like you care). Elsewhere, “(Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball” is exactly the type of effortlessly pleasurable pop song that Morrison excels at, while the weary “Old Old Woodstock” is a low-key, rootsy ballad that provides yet another chorus that you can sing along to. "Starting A New Life" has a loping country melody, and “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” an accomplished New Orleans piano groove, but both brief songs come and go without leaving a lasting impression, unlike the bluesy ballad "You're My Woman" and the ridiculously catchy album closer, "Moonshine Whiskey," which ramble longer than necessary. Both of the latter songs are still highlights, however, as is the fun and catchy (the words that best describe most of these songs) "I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)", one of several songs here that showcases Van's increased reliance on pedal steel and/or electric guitar (memorable guitar licks by Van and Ronnie Montrose are among this album's primary attributes). All in all, this is both a more rocking and countrified continuation of His Band And Street Choir, with longer songs and fewer of them, most of which contain joyous proclamations of love that belie Morrison’s cranky reputation. Ho hum, another year, another great Van Morrison album. P.S.: Morrison and Planet divorced two years later.
Saint Dominic’s Preview (Warner Bros. ’72) Rating: A
His two previous albums were each enjoyable, and both had their own unique twists that distinguished them from other Van Morrison albums. However, I never got the impression that Van was stretching himself on either one of those albums (in fact, Van himself confessed that Tupelo Honey was comprised of leftovers from earlier albums, which in some cases is hard to believe), a charge that could never be made against Saint Dominic’s Preview, one of Morrison's most ambitious and best albums. In fact, I'd argue that this is one of the best albums of the '70s, primarily due to four songs that see Van at his absolute best. These songs feature typical attributes such as soulful keyboards, gospel backing vocals, choice guitar licks, a nice pop to the drums, religious lyrics, and of course Van's one-of-a-kind voice, which is in vintage form throughout the album. Shorter songs such as "Gypsy," "I Will Be There," and "Redwood Tree" are all above average as well, but again the reason that this album deserves to be considered a classic is because of four monumental tracks. The joyous “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” starts the album off with three minutes of pop perfection, thereby continuing his recent trend of beginning each album with a great concise upbeat number. This grand horn heavy homage to another great r&b performer is the best of the bunch; Dexy's Midnight Runners surely thought so, as their cover of the song became a hit in 1982. The 6+ minute title track is also terrific in every way, with tasteful guitars, piano, and horns, plus Van's voice is in fine form and catchy backing vocals enhance several singable choruses as well. Which leaves us with two 10+ minute songs, the exclusion of which makes "greatest hits" albums from the likes of Van Morrison to be woefully inadequate snapshots rather than complete portraits. Anyway, "Listen To The Lion" is simply a staggering achievement that firmly establishes Van as one of the all-time great singers (he's in my top 10, in any event, maybe even top 5). The song unfolds at a leisurely pace, with acoustic guitar (again played by Van and Ronnie Monstrose) and piano, and the song is imbued with an inviting warmth, as like all of Van's early albums this one sounds terrific, and in a completely natural way. Yet it is the songs momentous peaks that make it it such a standout, as Van completely bares his soul, his majestic voice soaring ever upwards with a desperate conviction. I'll be damned if I know what Van is going on about, but as is often the case with him it's the delivery that matters most, as Van experiments with various intonations, caressing a wordless lyric one minute, growling the next, and completely losing himself in a trance-like state thereafter. The Irish Minstrel also displays a God-like genius on “Almost Independence Day,” a truly majestic epic that also possesses an understated beauty and an incredible intensity, helped by an eerie Moog synthesizer, some vigorous acoustic guitar strumming, and a great drumming performance by Lee Charlton. The drama builds and builds throughout, providing a fantastic ending to a fantastic album (I guarantee you that Bruce Springsteen thought so, as this album was an obvious influence on his early work, particularly The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle).
Hard Nose The Highway (Warner Bros. ’73) Rating: B
This is the overlooked album amid Van's early '70s run of excellence, and it's easy to see why. For one thing, there's only a single classic song in "Warm Love," a modestly melodic yet wonderful love song a la "Crazy Love." There are other very good songs as well, especially "Snow In San Anselmo," an evocative album opener notable for its jazzy bass and sax-led passages and the choir-like backing vocals of the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus, and the quotable ("seen some hard times, drawn some fine lines, no time for shoe shines") title track, a soulful sax/piano-led pop song with a vintage vocal from Van (and Jackie DeShannon on backing vocals). The rest of this laid-back album struggles somewhat to find an identity; Van attempts social commentary about post-WWII baby boomers on "Wild Children," but he fails to provide a memorable melody to match (though it's pretty enough), while Van's legendary bitterness ("just can't stand it no how, living in this world of lies") makes an appearance on the musically unremarkable "The Great Deception," which at least has a livelier approach and some good guitar going for it. Though "Autumn Song" has a nice music-to-lyrics match, it too is a flawed track whose 10+ minute duration is about twice as long as necessary, while Van's decision to include two cover songs is perhaps the strongest indication that his inspiration here wasn't at its highest. Strangely enough, his cover of "Bein' Green" (previously popularized by Kermit The Frog!!!) is oddly endearing, perhaps because his performance is so at odds with Van's curmudgeonly reputation, while "Purple Heather," a cover of a traditional Irish folk tune ("Wild Mountain Thyme"), is a lush, string-heavy ballad that provides an elegant ending to a good album. Did I say that this was a good album? Well, it is, as there are no filler songs and the album generally has a relaxing, low-key vibe that works well as background music and is even modestly appealing when it has your undivided attention. Still, I would rank this as only an average Van Morrison album. Say the words Hard Nose The Highway to me and the odds are good that I'll think of "Warm Love" and then draw a blank, so even though I enjoy it while I'm listening to it, this arguably ranks as his least essential '70s album aside from A Period Of Transition. As such, it should only be purchased after you've already obtained the rest of his surrounding albums.
It’s Too Late To Stop Now (Warner Bros. ’74) Rating: A-
Van's first and best live album attempts to blow to bits Van’s reputation as an inconsistent live performer, with hot backup help from the Caledonia Soul Orchestra (conjuring memories of The Band's coupling with Allen Toussaint on Rock Of Ages). The album runs through some of the highlights of his previous six studio releases, including “Warm Love,” “Into The Mystic,” “These Dreams Of You,” “Domino,” “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” “Listen To The Lion,” “Caravan,” and “Cypress Avenue.” Using first takes never tidied up by a production hand ("Moondance" was simply excluded because the performance was below par), these 100% authentic renditions are extremely lively and energetic, capturing Van and his ambitious backing band (consisting of 11 members!) at an impressive peak. In addition to his own classic compositions, Van offers up excellent homages to heroes such as Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, and Bobby “Blue” Bland in the form of some intense cover songs. He also delves deep into his personal archives for enjoyable versions of Them’s “Here Comes The Night” and “Gloria,” and throughout he expertly mixes together an eclectic brew of soul covers, sweaty r&b workouts, and slowly smoldering blues alongside his own spiritual incantations and pop nuggets. The interesting track listing (only the overly mellow but still pretty "Wild Children" seems out of place) and some vintage Van vocalisms (see 1:37 of "Into The Music") makes this one of the great live albums, though the downside of Van working without a net is a few missteps along the way, such as his overly accented vocals on the verses of "Warm Love" - which still achieves pay dirt on the chorus - and several annoying lyrical pronunciations on "Bringing it On Home To Me," which is otherwise still really good. Fortunately, the positives here overwhelm any negatives, and though I'd be lying if I said that I preferred most of the familiar Van songs to the originals, these versions are mostly excellent as well, and in differing ways (there's far more solo turns and string arrangements from that superb backing band of his, for starters). Long story short, I wish I was there on what was obviously a very good night, as Van worked his magic to a lucky and appreciative crowd sitting in on what would become one of the great live albums. Small wonder that (according to Mojo magazine) Van himself felt that this album marked the peak of his career. Note: Truth be told, having seen Van perform live twice (in 1995 and 1999) I know firsthand why he’s been tagged with that “inconsistent live performer” reputation. Actually, he was disappointing both times; the first concert had some great Van moments but was ultimately unfulfilling, the second one simply sucked, as Van was clearly just going through the motions to cash a paycheck.
Veedon Fleece (Warner Bros. ’74) Rating: A
All but ignored upon its release, this album’s stature has grown steadily over the years. Far and away Morrison's most Irish album to date, the bulk of these relaxed, pastoral melodies are framed around simple but accomplished acoustic guitar, piano, brushed drums, lovely flute (plus strings, guitar overdubs, and even a pedal steel guitar), and Van’s voice, which hits the high notes like he only could (or would even try to) in the early years. The album has an impressionistic flow and a riveting intensity not consistently seen since Astral Weeks (excepting the brilliant epics on Saint Dominic's Preview), and like that album this one should be listened to in its entirety, thereby enabling the gorgeously dreamy ballad ("Fair Play"), mythological story songs ("Lindon Arden Stole the Highlights," "Who Was That Masked Man"), haunting flute-led Irish folk ("Streets of Arklow"), slowly smoldering epic ("You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River"), upbeat country rock with "la la la" vocals ("Bulbs"), passionate soul ("Cul De Sac," which is reminiscent of "You’re My Woman"), lightly confident love ballad ("Comfort You"), hushed acoustic folk ("Come Here My Love"), and the ethereal closer ("Country Fair") to envelop the listener. The evocative end result often reaches heights of incandescent beauty, and it seems unfair that I'm listening to such a memorably pastoral summer album on what is probably the coldest day of the year (January 16, 2004). Still, this is a rewarding listen regardless of the weather. After all, when Van evokes the ghost of Richard Manual on "Who Was That Masked Man," or when he loses himself within the simmering intensity of "You Don’t Pull No Punches..." or when he pulls out all the stops with his gruff mannerisms on "Cul De Sac," once again it's apparent that we're in the presence of a premiere vocalist. As for the music, it can be slow going and repetitive at times, but the minor faults of this quietly intense and elegantly understated affair are easy to overlook because the intense music is so consistently lovely. Lyrically, the work of William Blake, his recent divorce, and his ongoing spiritual quest (metaphorically symbolized by the Veedon Fleece) weigh heavily on his mind, but for all the albums emotional heaviness it (like Astral Weeks) can't help but ultimately lift up my spirits. After all, great art does that, and Veedon Fleece has become something of a sleeper favorite among many critics and hardcore Van Morrison fans, many of whom (myself included) consider it a classic.
A Period Of Transition (Warner Bros. ’77) Rating: B-
After Veedon Fleece Van took some time off, surfacing only rarely (such as on The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz) and keeping a low profile. Unbeknown to most people, Morrison was suffering from writer’s block, and his tentative return was with the aptly titled A Period Of Transition, the first truly skippable proper album of Van’s solo career thus far. The album was produced by Dr. John, who collaborated with Van on many of these songs, most of which feature familiar Van obsessions such as William Blake and spirituality. The main problem is the lazy songwriting; Van often simply takes a phrase (“you gotta make it through the world if you can,” “yeah, something’s going on, it fill you up,” “how sweet is the joyous sound whenever we meet,” “it’s a real heavy connection”), repeats it ad nauseam, and adds mildly appealing but generally uninspired musical embellishments (punchy horns, seductive sax, gospel backing, lightly funky rhythms). These embellishments are often upbeat and catchy, and Van is still a great singer, especially on the slower songs towards the end of this skimpy (34:06) album. Which only goes to prove that even a bored, going through the motions Morrison was still incapable of delivering a truly bad album. Still, he’s capable of much better, and in fact he would soon shake off this lethargic effort and get back on track.
Wavelength (Warner Bros. ’78) Rating: B+
Like Tupelo Honey, this isn't a major work but it is an enjoyable one with some sublime highlights, and as such Wavelength was a significant step up from A Period Of Transition. Slightly less serious and more playful than we’re accustomed to and featuring more electric guitar than usual, the album also adds synthesizers and often (too often?) makes use of female backing vocals. The Band’s Garth Hudson appears on three tracks ("Kingdom Hall", "Venice U.S.A.," and "Take It Where You Find It"), and Jackie DeShannon co-writes “Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession,” but this is Van’s album, as fun, upbeat, singable party songs such as “Kingdom Hall” and “Wavelength” could only come from Van The Man. Elsewhere, “Natalia” has a wonderfully airy melody and “Venice U.S.A.” is appealingly funky, though its mindlessly singable chorus shows how Van’s (increasingly America-obsessed) lyrics here are sometimes silly or simply sub par. In addition, whereas “Wavelength” takes about a minute and a half to get going (this ode to radio is still terrific though), “Venice U.S.A.” overstays its welcome, as do several other songs, I suppose. The average song length is 6+ minutes, and the long running times aren’t always justified. Still, even when Van is uninspired songwriting-wise (“Checkin' It Out,” “Lifetimes,” “Hungry For Your Love”) the album has a soulful warmth and intimacy that his last album largely lacked (though the production is a tad too pristine at times). And when Van is inspired, he’s really inspired. For example, “Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession” is a riveting ballad whose self-referential lyrics (“see the cowboy ride”) showed the Belfast Cowboy oozing a confidence that was only growing, his muse having returned after a brief period of waywardness. Saving the best for last, “Take It Where You Find It” is a quietly epic love letter to America that gets better and better as it goes along (the song is nearly 9 minutes long). Simply put, this song, which I’d rank among Van’s all-time best, makes me want to lock arms with someone, anyone, and commence in a slowly swaying sing along, such is the joyous majesty of this much-overlooked album track, which provides a fantastic finale to a significantly flawed but at times outstanding album.
Into The Music (Warner Bros. ’79) Rating: A
Once again at the peak of his considerable powers, on Into The Music Van effortlessly mixes in irresistibly catchy mid-tempo pop songs with contemplative ballads, the end result of which ultimately coheres together thematically as one big tribute to love, both spiritually and emotionally. Capturing Van at an optimistic high, he pledges his allegiance to the Lord (“like a full force gale, I was lifted up again by the Lord”) while happily relishing in blissful romance, all while interweaving sprightly piano, moody violin, bouncy horns, seductive sax, and lightly upbeat female backing vocals, with the whole ensemble being anchored by Van’s own matchless voice. As is often the case with Van, “Bright Side Of The Road” begins the album with an upbeat, brassy winner, with Katie Kissoon's girlish backing vocals adding an appealingly light touch, while “Full Force Gale” is an ecstatically uplifting religious song. “Stepping Out Queen” is probably the most filler-ish track on the album, but as such things go it’s good filler, and though “Troubadours” comes a little too close to “Warm Love” for comfort, its lovely use of pennywhistle (played by the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson), trumpet (Mark Isham), and sax (Pee Wee Ellis) make it a significant song in its own right. Expertly evoking images of the English countryside, “Rolling Hills” is a Celtic sing along with agreeably gruff vocals from Van, deeply religious lyrics, and a delightfully light touch on the piano, while “You Make Me Feel So Free” is a somewhat slight but extremely catchy sing along whose dance hall cadences are perfectly captured by the album’s spacious production. Fully warmed up, it is the almost suite-like last four songs in particular that makes Into The Music (whose title obviously harks back to a previous Van classic) indispensable, beginning with the 1-2 punch of “Angeliou,” a simple but soulful love song whose story seems to continue on “And The Healing Has Begun,” an 8-minute masterpiece that’s lyrically romantic and alive, as well as musically gorgeous and melodic. Continuing in this mellow vein, if you wanted to nitpick I suppose you could say that his cover of Cliff Richard/Nat King Cole’s “It’s All In The Game” is a little too “easy listening,” but you’ll hear no such complaints from me, especially since this classy song segues right into the superior “You Know What They’re Writing About,” which is classic Van in the way that it quietly simmers with a trance-like intensity. Anyway, I didn’t mean to do a song-by-song recount here, so I’ll summarize by saying that it’s difficult not to feel the joy or sing along to this album’s upbeat songs, and that it's equally difficult not be captivated by the album’s mesmerizing mood pieces and overall message. Van’s feel-good lyrics speak of a pious inner peace without succumbing to the preachy sermonizing that makes most religious tracts such a bore, making for adult oriented music of an exceedingly rare quality.