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