26 Years Ago: Van Morrison Gets His Groove Back on ‘Avalon Sunset’
Van Morrison spent much of the '80s being greeted with varying levels of commercial indifference on the U.S. album charts, and as the decade wore on, he seemed to drift into the sort of elder statesman status reserved for formerly top-selling artists whose work has irreversibly diverged from the mainstream. As it turned out, however, he still had a couple of big hits left in him.
Morrison's sales first started to perk up with Irish Heartbeat, a 1988 collaboration with the Chieftains that found the two acts working together on a set of material that, while largely traditional, felt fresher and more vital than a fair bit of the New Age-influenced music that made up some of Morrison's early-to-mid-'80s records. And although Morrison has repeatedly pointed out the folly of trying to discern any sort of path or pattern in his music, Heartbeat did seem to herald the arrival of a newly invigorated Van -- one who returned the following year with his 19th studio LP, Avalon Sunset.
While still incorporating elements of his meditative '80s output and the jazz-influenced sound that crept into records like 1987's Poetic Champions Compose, Sunset saw Morrison distilling his influences more clearly and consistently than he'd seemed able or willing during recent releases -- not only during radio-friendly numbers like the hits "Whenever God Shines His Light" and "Have I Told You Lately," but overall. Even at its least melodic (the spoken-word piece "Coney Island") and most nostalgic ("Orangefield"), the album boasted a sense of vitality that had occasionally gone missing over the years.
Of course, as an album artist, Morrison has generally tended to be more of a snapshot-taker than a sculptor, and Avalon Sunset is no exception. the record came together quickly, with two days of rehearsals and another two set aside for recording, and critics who'd weathered Morrison's artistic ups and downs were quick to point out that the album might have benefited from a more deliberately paced approach. But by this point, everyone knew that enduring Morrison's lows was worth it to experience his highs -- and anyway, fussing over every last detail would have been antithetical to his workmanlike approach to music in general.
More than anything, Avalon Sunset seemed to present a picture of a man at peace, which was a position he'd audibly struggled to attain throughout his career while attempting to reconcile his growing fame -- and the business obligations that came as part of the package -- with his efforts to strip away all that outside interference and simply play.
"This is all an illusion," Morrison insisted when asked about his career during a 1987 interview with Q. "It's something that you're making up: you're making up that I'm a performer who's going to go out on stage and put this thing across, so it's a bit like acting. You're taking a hell of a lot for granted. And then the audience is taking a lot for granted as well, because they agree with that way of looking at me. But for me, all I wanted to do was start playing. It was like A-Level material, learning from all these records. It was all very ear-orientated stuff, it wasn't orientated along the lines of 'I'm a personality and I'm going to put myself across and wear these clothes.'"
That disconnect, explained Morrison, stemmed from his often-repeated insistence that he got into professional music the same way anyone else starts a career -- as a job. "When I started playing, I went down the union and said 'I'm a professional musician, give me a card,'" he continued. "So they gave me a card, and I began to play in various bands and get work. And that was it. But it was for the music itself, never the show, although that did enter into it. And that's really what my entrance point was, and that hasn't changed. But I think it's difficult to find a way of doing music that doesn't have all these peripheral attachments to it."
As he told writer Mick Brown in 1986, "I don't really have ambitions" -- which makes it tempting to wonder whether Morrison derived much satisfaction from the enthusiastic commercial reaction to Avalon Sunset, which included some of the fastest album sales of his career and a Top 20 U.K. hit single in "Whenever God Shines His Light," an unlikely seeming duet with British pop legend Cliff Richard. On the other side of the pond, Morrison notched another adult contemporary hit with "Have I Told You Lately," which would soon storm the pop charts courtesy of a cover recorded by Rod Stewart.
To whatever extent he may or may not have been aware of the response to Avalon Sunset, its direction proved to be a comfortable one for Morrison, who returned with an album that more or less served as a sequel with 1990's Enlightenment. Curmudgeonly reputation aside, he sounded abnormally happy. "Psychologists will tell you that artists have to be in a state of despair before they can produce great work. But I don't think that: it just feels better, because you think that, although you're depressed, you're going to come out of it with something," he told Q. "But in my case I know it doesn't produce better work. I produce better work if I'm content. I can't create that feeling if I'm in a state of conflict."
Avalon Sunset and Enlightenment started off a particularly prolific decade for Morrison, who followed them up in 1991 with his first-ever double studio LP, Hymns to the Silence. Between 1989 and 2012, he released a dozen albums of original material, most of which peaked inside the Billboard Top 10 -- but true to form, he's never seemed to put his renewed pop stardom into consideration when entering the studio; you never know which genres he's going to focus on when Morrison decides to cut a new record, but you can always count on the results being thoroughly, inscrutably Van.
"You have to remember that writing those sorta songs is not reality, it's more like trance, dream, y'know, like dreamwork," he mused during a 1989 interview with NME. "The mythical thing can enter the creating but there's the mythical place and the real place. And there's both ... I get it between waking and sleeping. Or, when I'm doing something else. I don't sit down and think I'm gonna write about subject X or subject Y. I could be doing something and an impression comes in from outside and the song emerges out of that. It's never thought about or contrived."
"Sometimes it's an experience, and sometimes it's just a gig," he added in a conversation with David Wild. "Sometimes you get halfway there, sometimes you get all the way there. It's never the same. It's very unpredictable. You work from the chaos. You work the material. There's no set pattern. What I do is just as much a mystery to me as it is to you."
It's a mystery he seemed to grasp fairly tightly with Avalon Sunset, and one he's managed to keep in his sights more often than not over the course of one of rock's most impressive careers -- not that it's ever impressed him much. "I'm just me," he shrugged to Q. "A singer and a songwriter, and that's it."
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