How much of a good thing is too much..?

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Van Morrison – Moondance Deluxe Edition

How much of a good thing is too much..?

“It’s too late to stop now,” sang Van Morrison on Moondance in 1970, and he was right: here we are again in its aura, drawn back like wanderers to the light of an inn. Recorded when he and his wife Janet (pregnant with their daughter, Shana) lived in the mountains near Woodstock, Moondance was the third LP in a solo career that stretches to this day. Morrison had already made his first masterpiece, Astral Weeks, and was assiduously cultivating his five-decade grudge against those he deemed the enemies of his music. It was far too late to stop.

Astral Weeks and Moondance are profoundly different works, apparently unconnected by theme or progression. If you didn’t know, you might suppose Moondance was created first, since Astral Weeks is the more Joycean, the one with bigger ideas, while the 10 songs on Moondance have conventional structures and fall into recognisable genres (soul, country, jazz). But as this 60-track, 4CD/1 Blu-Ray boxset reveals, Morrison was aiming for something quite ambitious on Moondance: a combination of understated music and consummate ‘feel’, which would be locked down and given modest embellishment (flute, harpsichord), leaving the framework just flexible enough to allow the musicians to produce little moments of magic.

Moondance transports and elevates. Atmospherically fluid (it starts with pouring rain but the sun soon shines), it turns a boyhood swim into a transcendental episode (“And It Stoned Me”), finds impossible romance in the life of a gypsy (“Caravan”) and uses its own vocabulary (“fantabulous”, “magnificently”) to raise a homespun insight or a pleasant evening to the stature of an epiphany. Even the unwelcome businessmen shaking hands and talking in numbers (“Glad Tidings”) can’t spoil the wild beauty of Morrison’s landscapes. Moondance has always been huge in his body of work.

Years of demand for remasters of Moondance and Astral Weeks were answered in 2008 with Japanese CDs that can still be found on Amazon. The lure of this Deluxe Edition is not so much sound quality (you may feel the remastering is too intense and bass-y) but access to the Moondance vaults. So, for example, the second disc (‘The Sessions’) has eight takes of “Caravan” – three of which break down almost immediately – and the third disc (‘More Sessions’) has eight takes of “Into The Mystic” and seven of “Brand New Day”. Far from being fragments or sketches, most of these are complete performances with vocals. The problem is that Morrison worked painstakingly with acoustic guitar, bass and drums for six or seven takes at a time, making only minor adjustments as he went. Don’t expect stunning new arrangements every time.

Into The Mystic”, as it happens, is an elegant piece that can withstand being heard a number of times in a row. The heart leaps each time it begins, and some takes are so fine that it’s not easy to hear the faults that Morrison detected in them. Whatever he was after, it was obviously something subtle. Finally, piano, horns and electric guitar are added on Take 17, by which time the song is almost home. But seven takes in the company of “Brand New Day” are not nearly as thrilling. Its arrangement is dependent on a piano and gospel vocal trio and it sounds barren without them. By Take 4, a five-minute instrumental, facetiousness set in and I started lustily singing “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” over the chords. “Glad Tidings” is more interesting because they can’t decide on a tempo and the song vacillates between a lively, “Brown Eyed Girl”-style canter and a more ballad-like tempo that’s all wrong for the lyrics’ optimistic message. By Take 7 they’re getting into minute specifics (“Van – one hair slower”, suggests someone over the intercom) but are no closer to finding the solution. The fourth disc (‘Sessions, Alternates & Mixes’) puts “Come Running” and “Moondance” under the microscope (six and two takes, respectively), with a few takes where one of the musicians sings a prominent high harmony on “Come Running”. It could be seen as a foretaste of the interplay that Morrison would later adopt with Brian Kennedy, but the idea was scrapped for the LP version.

Some songs from the Moondance sessions didn’t make it onto the album. “I’ve Been Working” was given a total rethink and held over for the follow-up, His Band And The Street Choir. On the takes here, it’s a funky vamp like The Bar-Kays with Morrison improvising lyrics about Jesse James and Lord Tennyson. But 11 mins (Take 1) and 10 mins (Take 5) are a long time to sit through a jam that’s clearly not suitable for Moondance. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” doesn’t get far either. In the hesitant run-through we hear, only Van and the pianist sound confident of the song’s changes. The much-bootlegged “I Shall Sing”, meanwhile, is a catchy tune with a buoyant calypso flavour in the horn part. We quickly become very familiar with this horn part, because “I Shall Sing” extends to 13 maddening takes. The song falters; they start again. Van stops it; it resumes. There’s a mistake; the mistake is corrected. Precisely 15 minutes elapse before our stoicism cracks and we turn into John Cleese shouting at the bouzouki players in the Cheese Shop sketch. No wonder it was left off the album. Morrison must have been sick of hearing it.

Perennially disgruntled that Warner Bros, and not he, owns the masters of Moondance, Morrison has condemned the Deluxe Edition as “unauthorised” and akin to the theft of his music. It might have been better to leave it alone. Yes, it’s fascinating at times to be a witness to the meticulous construction of great music, but the contents of this boxset feel a mite desperate, rather than generous, and the flabbiness of its 11-minute jams is entirely inappropriate for an album that famously doesn’t contain an ounce of fat. The 2CD Expanded Edition, featuring 11 tracks from the Deluxe, would be a less expensive option for the non-obsessive Moondance fan.
David Cavanagh

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