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    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    The greatest #6: Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison


    There’s not that much mystery left in music. For everything that’s not readily disposable, there’s a lineup of reporters, publicists, critics, interviewers, and yeah, bloggers ready to compress works into digestible angles. Backstories get told, lyrics get explained, and meanings get narrowed down. It’s just a fact of business marketing that sales depend on publicity and that publicity depends on access. But sometimes I can’t help longing for a time before 24-hour information cycles, before news stories documented every footfall of a band, before we were all plugged-in infovores. In this pre-dialup utopia, all we have at our fingertips is a general sense of an artist, a few vague reference points in his biography, and a round vinyl disc of music in front of us. Buying an album is still an event, and we’re still practically trembling as we undo the plastic.

    There’ve been a few albums this decade that have retained their mystery for me. Even in the face of magazine covers and analytic reviews, works like Joanna Newsom’s Ys and Sigur Ros’s catalogue are still too dense and singular for me to reduce. Even with backstories, even with identifiers they’re constantly tagged with, they've kept on dwarfing and defying their categorizations. But the work that's most successful at enchanting me endlessly is an older one, Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece from 1974. No matter how closely I listen to it, or what I read about it, it only seems to take on more folds. The more I admire its simplicity, the more complex it paradoxically grows.

    Confident I won’t be able to demystify it too much, a little background: Veedon Fleece was a back-to-basics reboot for an artist who never hewed too closely to genre specifications anyway. After his divorce and disbanding his orchestra, Morrison returned to his hometown of Belfast for the first time in eight years. There and upon his return to America, he wrote Veedon Fleece in a few weeks, infusing a healthy gulp of Ireland into the subjects, lyrics and music. Closest stylistically to his classic Astral Weeks, the album also relies on a stream-of-consciousness and is largely acoustic. But unlike that other work, critics mostly dismissed it and the record-buying public shunned it.

    Now for the more intangible: Morrison’s always been a leading figure in blue-eyed soul, but on Veedon Fleece, his voice sounds weirder and more idiosyncratic. The soul is still very much there, but his impassioned phrasings and ethereal falsetto are all his own. It’s hard to forget his anguished howl at the end of “Cul de Sac,” his guttural, throat-clearing guffaws on "Bulbs." His tendency vocally to adapt and elongate at will fit the lyrics perfectly, which also tend to meander and drift like a backcountry river. Every song, even the largely straightforward “Comfort You,” bends and twists on repeated listens, stripped-down and cryptic and multifaceted all at once.

    Along the way, Morrison cites Poe, Thoreau, Wilde, and Blake and his Eternals. That set of influences gives us a sense of just how poetic, natural, supernatural, and mystical his own work is. On the longest song, the sprawling eight-minute-fifty-second “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River,” he details a homecoming to the fluttering strands of flute: “We're goin' out in the country to get down to the real soul,/ I mean, the real soul people,/ We're goin' out in the country, get down to the real soul/ We're gettin' out to the west coast/ Shining our light into the days of bloomin' wonder/ Goin' as much with the river as not.” Those issues of authenticity and self-discovery in nature seem especially Wordsworth-Romantic and Thoreau-transcendalist, with Ireland, "God's green land," standing in for Tintern Abbey or Walden. From there, specifically alluding to Blake, he sings of a search for the titular Veedon Fleece. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s a mythical object of Morrison’s own invention, his own Holy Grail much in the way Blake dreamed up his Beulah.

    Earlier, Morrison composes another mythical figure, Linden Arden, who’s a little easier to parse. Led by a sullen piano intro, “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” is the tale of an Irish man adrift in San Francisco. In just a few lines, Arden’s memorably described: “Loved the morning sun and whiskey ran just like water in his veins/ Loved to go to church on Sunday, even though he was a drinking man.” But the apparent peace is quickly undercut when some neighborhood toughs threaten Arden, and he cuts their heads open with a hatchet. It’s a rare and stunning intrusion of violence on the otherwise peaceable album. Its closing lines are even more powerful when Morrison sings, “He said, ‘Someday, it may get lonely.’/ Now he’s livin’, livin’ with a gun.” The song is just as much an outcast on Veedon Fleece as Arden is in America, and among references to Killarney lake and Arklow streets, the mention of San Francisco can be jarring. And yet it also fits beautifully in an album indelibly defined by struggle and searching, of people looking for home and existing in flux.

    There remain moments on Veedon Fleece that I wish I understood better. Sometimes, I can’t help wishing I knew which references are directly autobiographical, which are simply fantastic, and which are a redolent mash of the two. At the same time, I’m glad that this album came out in the '70s, when artists still had auras and works could still permeate listeners on their own terms. But I have a feeling, even if it were just being released today, that Veedon Fleece still wouldn’t unravel or surrender its knots of mysteries. It wouldn't be any less of a soothing antidote or a roving puzzle. After all, even after ten years of having it in my collection, it’s still just as alluring and affecting and incredible as it’s ever been.

    Veedon Fleece is currently out-of-print, but there are still a few used copies on Amazon.

    * MP3: "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River" - Van Morrison from Veedon Fleece
    * MP3: "Linden Arden Stole The Highlights" - Van Morrison from Veedon Fleece

    Comments on "The greatest #6: Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison"

     

    Blogger The Sanity Inspector said ... (10:33 PM) : 

    I read Van's interview in Rolling Stone in the late 80s, wherein he said that fans asked him if he still had the dogs from that photo. "Listen, an album cover is not real life!" he said.

     

    Blogger Ekko said ... (9:56 AM) : 

    I love that album--haven't listened to it in ages. Forgot how good it was. Great post.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (11:43 PM) : 

    I remember acquiring my 2nd copy veedon fleece back in the mid-70's out of the cut-out bin. Already I was sure that the album was by far the best Van had ever produced. And now years later I am glad someone has the same attachment to this truly excellent album that still sounds new today.

     

    Blogger Samuel said ... (10:12 PM) : 

    "Veedon Fleece is currently out-of-print, but there are still a few used copies on Amazon."

    Now just recently made available along with nearly the complete Morrison catalogue on iTunes. Glad I downloaded the full album; this one somehow slipped through the cracks in my long attentiveness to one of the great vocalists from Astral Weeks to Pay the Devil.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (2:07 PM) : 

    Van Morrison is a lifetime project, indeed. A mystic. A searcher. I love Van. I hope I never meet him! I just want to hear him sing.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (1:43 PM) : 

    I find "Fair Play" to you particulary affecting and I can't explain why. This album takes several listens to get into for the first time listener but once you do this you can be hooked!

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:39 PM) : 

    Veedon Fleece is among my alltime favorite records, alternately revelatory and enigmatic, and definately best savored late at night or early in the morning, with no distractions. The only other artists that affect me in a similar way are Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt, putting This record in rarified company.

     

    Blogger David said ... (2:40 AM) : 

    I listened to Linden Arden several times today . . . and the first two times tears came to my eyes. I don't know why. I'm a 52 year old lawyer and crying is not what I do (last time was when my mother died on Christmas day 2006). I've heard the song described, I think accurately, as "ferociously mournful."

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:10 AM) : 

    Same thing here David/ 54 year old watching sport -my dog nited my sudden sobbing and jumped up for a drink of tears. Most unusual.
    Sir Paul de Boe

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (1:39 AM) : 

    i too am in the company of being singularly effected by this album.
    why?
    who is linden arden?
    where is the veedon fleece.
    like this album, it is shrouded in mystery.
    cheers

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (11:54 PM) : 

    Hi Charlie, Greetings from the left side of the U.S.A..
    Re: demystifying the lyrics in Veedon Fleece. I could reveal a lot, but I don't get any pleasure in bursting bubbles.
    It's usually a lot less "mystical" than folks want to imagine.For one example, Van sings on "Fair Play.."that "there's only one Meadows Way to go, and you say GERONIMO." The truth is that he was deciding where to live and begin his new life. His fiancee wanted to move to the bucolic West Marin town of San Geronimo, on Meadow Way. They lived there happily for several years.Pop! What's that sound?!

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (12:05 AM) : 

    Charlie, Greetings from the left side of the U.S.A.. There is a lot to reveal re: the lyrics on Veedon Fleece, but I don't get any pleasure out of bursting bubbles.
    They are usually a lot less "mystical" than folks want to believe. For example, on FAIR PLAY..,Van sings "And there's only one Meadows Way to go, and you say Geronimo." He was asking his fiancee where they should move to begin their lives together, and she said San Geronimo.A bucolic town in W. Marin County, where they lived happily on Meadow Way.Pop! What's that sound?!

     

    Blogger Daniela said ... (11:08 PM) : 

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    Blogger Pinup Nights said ... (8:51 PM) : 

    I am crazy about Van Morrison, and "Linden Arden Stole The Highlights" must be one of his best ever songs. Its a very mysterious tune but in a few sentences Van conjures the sunlight and slopes of San Francisco. I would describe the piano as "beautiful" rather than "sullen". That small grumble aside this is a fantastic review, thank you!!

     

    Blogger Plush said ... (4:25 PM) : 

    Pulled out my original copy of "Veedon Fleece" today after more than 10 years and listened-- stunned again.

    Linden Arden is surely a masterpiece and more so of one since it is so short in length. The poetry and expression is far beyond what I remembered and the depth of emotion is mindblowing.

    I really like what you wrote about it too.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (11:56 PM) : 

    How is it possible that this masterpiece is out of print?
    I can buy Chocolate Rain on Itunes but not this.. such a crime.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (9:29 PM) : 

    Such an excellent review, I love the insightful in to one of my all-time favorite albums. You tap in to van's genius.

     

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    Anonymous custom paper writer said ... (11:10 AM) : 

    Besides that much of Morrison's music is structured around the conventions of soul music and R&B, such as the popular singles "Brown Eyed Girl", "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)", "Domino" and "Wild Night"

     

    Anonymous Buy cialis said ... (8:32 AM) : 

    Such an excellent review, I love the insightful in to one of my all-time favorite albums. You tap in to van's genius.

     

    Anonymous richard said ... (3:00 PM) : 

    I always seem to come across people telling me that Astral Weeks is the greatest album by Van Morrison. Not for me. Veedon Fleece is like taking a seat in an old Irish tavern with the fire roaring in the corner, and listening as a wise old travelling man sings you the story of his life; all the people he's met, all the adventures he's had, all the questions he's pondered and all the places he's gone. It's an incredible album. Astral Weeks is very good but, it's not like this.

     

    Anonymous tablet pc 10 pulgadas said ... (5:01 AM) : 

    Really useful piece of writing, lots of thanks for your article.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (8:33 AM) : 

    Listen to either astral weeks of veedon fleece equally and often. Your review is spot on. Still think best van song ever is in the garden, but can't delegate the above two albums as best van albums! Thanks

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (2:28 PM) : 

    Fair Play is absolutely haunting. He heard it for the first time no a visit to Paris and ever since when I hear this song I think of that City.

     

    Blogger David Garfinkel said ... (8:04 AM) : 

    I love this record and it makes me emotional as well. Aside from the lyrics, the looseness of the music and the airiness of the production feel so live. It feels like you're right there in the studio and I think what it speaks to is a way of recording that may not exist anymore as well. Not only are Van's lyrics dreamy, but so is the flute and the piano and the whole thing, but it's also a combination of sad and wistful. Country Fair always makes me long for youth and innocence. Veedon Fleece has real soul to it and that's rare.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (4:51 AM) : 

    A very elegantly written review for an under appreciated album of rare beauty.
    Nice!

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:11 AM) : 

    The piano intro to "Linden Arden" is sullen? Melancholic, yes, and tender, reflective, but positive too. As Jonathan Cott said once, that intro is like a prayer. Veedon Fleece is about getting in the zone, the music gives you more information than the lyrics. Walk away from the lyrics....

     

    Blogger tangledblue3 said ... (12:28 AM) : 

    This is such a truly brilliant collection of songs, with excellent production and Van's deft and affecting vocals. All soul, poetry, melancholy, spirits and endless melodicism. Bought my first copy on vinyl and wore it out. At first I played side one over and over again, it's so deep, resonant and fascinating both lyrically and vocally. I've since bought copies on cd for myself and others, and they've all enjoyed it, too. Excellent piece on the album. Thank you.

     

    Blogger charlie said ... (3:28 AM) : 

    where to find a copy??? not amazon!!!! go to a used record shop.

     

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    Blogger Michael Taylor said ... (6:35 AM) : 

    Veedon Fleece is like eating olives when you are young. Never liked it for years. Now it is my favourite hands down. Fair Play is just so amazing as is Cul de Sac. Don't know how Bulbs fits into all the navel gazing, but it does! Along with Astral weeks and King Creosote's Diamond Mine, it is essential go to bed and chill music for me!

     

    Blogger Vaughn Abbott said ... (12:45 PM) : 

    Without pause, anytime a discussion of Van's body of work comes up I will always volunteer VEEDON FLEECE as my most favorite album of his. I'm a huge fan of his work but that album never fails to transport me into the mystic.

     

    Anonymous Anonymous said ... (11:15 PM) : 

    An incredible record. I have a signed LP from Van and it is the treasure of my collection. Fair Play was also my wedding song.
    I'm not into meditation, but this entire album lulls me into a trance that is intoxicating. My favorite Van record by far.

     

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