Among those known primarily as solo performers, there are few rock artists who have enjoyed continuous careers as long and as successful/influential as has Van Morrison. A certain Mr. Dylan, whose debut album hit the racks in 1962, is the obvious standard bearer while the post- Buffalo Springfield Neil Young could also named. The Belfast-bred Morrison first came up in the mid-60s with his group Them—their single “Gloria” has since become a rock ‘n’ roll rite of passage for nearly anyone who has ever picked up an electric guitar. Fresh out of the gate as a solo act in 1967, he had a huge pop hit in “Brown-Eyed Girl” but almost as quickly recorded the virtually unclassifiable Astral Weeks, a jazzy/folky improv flight of fancy that pondered his own post-war youth and made his reputation as a great innovator and vocalist, becoming one of rock’s most acclaimed albums ever despite selling almost nothing at the time.
With a personality as ornery as the music was often sublime, Van the Man followed his muse with a singular determination, able to turn out hits on a fairly regular basis while incorporating a wealth of musical idioms and showing a temperament that made him hard to figure. To say he always “enjoyed” his success would be a stretch. Impatient with music-biz types, critics and even at times his own audience, Morrison has not been shy about editorializing in song. He was in just such a mood when he released this record in 1991.
Van spots a music-industry bloke in the front row and prepares his right jab.
Hymns to the Silence is one of those double-disc affairs that comes along not as a career-peak embarrassment of riches (like Blonde on Blonde or Layla) but more of a case of a prolific songwriter having accumulated a backlog of material—and apparently some grudges as well. On the dullish opener called “Professional Jealousy” Morrison says of his chosen trade, “The only requirement is to know what is needed/and then delivering what’s needed on time.” Not the greatest omen at the start of a 94-minute album. The next track, “I’m Not Feeling it Anymore,” with its catchy piano hook and sprightly rhythm, is a considerable improvement but again voices the same doubts: “If this is success then something’s awful wrong/’cause I bought the dream and I had to play along.” Many of the songs that follow settle into blues-based grooves as Morrison yearns for an “Ordinary Life” or at least “Some Peace of Mind.” He does enjoy the company of his simpatico backing group, breaking out his alto sax for the lively roadhouse rumble “So Complicated” while sharing vocals with his keyboardist/bandleader (and fellow Sixties veteran) Georgie Fame. Disc one ends with the nine-minute “Take Me Back” which echoes the form of Astral Weeks with its impassioned vocal incantations and rear-mirror view of an open-souled childhood.
It’s also a great bridge over to the more expansive views to be enjoyed on the second disc where the song titles alone (“By His Grace”, “Be Thou My Vision” and the title cut) indicate there will be less grousing and more of the spiritual searching that many of his fans have come to know and love—and expect. Finding that inner core of contentment may indeed be tricky when the means of reaching it has to be run through the cold mechanisms of the music industry. “We lived where dusk had meaning/And repaired to quiet sleep,” Van sings in “Pagan Streams”, typical of the hard-won satisfactions on Hymn’s second half. Many of these are couched in a Celtic-influenced sonic palette and the Chieftains, with whom he had recently done an album, guest on several cuts. That group’s Erik Bell plays an airy synthesizer accompaniment to Morrison’s spare, ringing guitar on the album’s most accomplished track.
Named for the Belfast location where he grew up, “On Hyndford Street” (a gritty row of brick houses pictured on the back cover) is a high-water mark for the booksmart Morrison, the kind of guy who writes songs with titles like “Rave On, John Dunne.” Morrison’s narration beautifully invokes the spirit of his literary heroes like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, with a boy’s awakening sense of the wider world fused to a grown man’s photographic memory of long-passed events and place names (“Walking from the end of the lines to the seaside/stopping at Fusco’s for ice cream in the days before rock ‘n’ roll”). That he progressed from these humble beginnings to a status as one that music’s great artists will make some shake their heads at all the sourness of the album’s earlier tracks, even with the knowledge that fame and fortune is rarely achieved at no personal cost. But tracks like “On Hyndford Street” make it all worthwhile and longtime Van fans with certain gaps in their collections will likely find Hymns to the Silence to be a pleasant discovery, while newbies are better directed to his great albums from the late Sixties and early Seventies, or at least to a good compilation.
You can go home again. On the occasion of his 70th birthday (8/31/2015), Van sings/recites “On Hyndford Street” in this beautifully-filmed concert clip from a location he made famous, Cypress Avenue in Belfast.