[10 January 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Van Morrison’s career is dangerously close to being “overcomplified”.
After leaving the rock-band roots that he started with Them, Van Morrison launched his solo career with 1968’s Astral Weeks (or if you want to get really technical, 1967’s Bang release Blowin’ Your Mind!). Of course, Astral Weeks has been written about time and time again, easily taking its place in rock history (and Lester Bang’s LP collection) and it still stands as Morrison’s greatest achievement. Yet even with killer singles like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” in its wake, Morrison’s consistent output never seemed to place him in that all-time list of great singer songwriters (Astral Weeks excepting). What’s particularly discouraging is how in 2007, Morrison had four greatest hits come out over the course of the year (which included At the Movies: Soundtrack Hits, Forever Gold: Van Morrison, and The Best of Van Morrison: Volume 3). Still on Top—The Greatest Hits was the last one out the gate in ‘07. Fortunately, it is also the best.
With so many compilations, however, it becomes really hard to discern some of Morrison’s stronger achievements, instead having his career simply distilled into a smattering of radio hits and concert favorites. By being so airplay-focused, Still On Top winds up losing focus on such landmarks like Astral Weeks (of which no songs are culled from), Moondance (represented by only two songs), and Tupelo Honey (represented only by “Wild Night”). Furthermore, for an album with a subtitle so prominent as The Greatest Hits, it’s amazing how many “hits” are ultimately neglected. There’s no “Come Running”, “Blue Money”, “Redwood Tree”, “Tupelo Honey”, or “Ivory Tower”. If we go as far as to include fan favorites as well, then we have to ask where such amazing tracks like “T.B. Sheets” are (or, for that matter, anything from Astral Weeks [and in case you haven’t noticed, Astral Weeks is really damn good]).
Yet if you can put all of those grievances aside, then you still have a remarkably consistent career overview. Opening with a one-two punch of songs he recorded with Them (“Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night”), the chronologically-arranged hits package wastes absolutely no time. “Brown Eyed Girl” goes to “Moondance” which then slides right into “Crazy Love” and “Domino”. Some of these songs remain absolutely timeless, and with a fresh coat of remastered sound, tracks like “Moondance” have never sounded so clean (particularly with the ever-peppy horn arrangements).
Truth be told, given how “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” often snag the most attention, it can become really easy to forget how great songs like “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” are. Opening with a mumbling vocal phrasing, Morrison soon brings in layers of horns before launching the song into the feel-good stratosphere. Unfortunately, being a greatest hits compilation released at the tail-end of 2007, it’s only natural to expect the inclusion of a couple of tracks from his past-prime solo career (the most recent being the jazzy “Stranded” from his so-so 2005 effort Magic Time). The compilation really loses steam after the surprisingly-good live rendition of “Dweller at the Threshold”, slowly devolving into a slew of Adult Contemporary throwaways like “In the Garden” and “Have I Told You Lately?” As time passes, it’s obvious that Van Morrison has written himself into a corner, relying on the mid-tempo grooves that got his career started in the first place. There are times when he’s genuinely able to recapture some of that early ‘70s magic (“Days Like This” is a top-notch latter-day Morrison song), but for the most part, we are treated to Van Morrison writing more Van Morrison songs. His days of ramshackle improvisation are clearly—and regrettably—behind him.
Still on Top, however, remains a solid compilation, giving casual fans a surprisingly vivid panorama of Morrison’s extensive back catalog. If you just want “Brown Eyed Girl”, then Still On Top is a gateway to some fantastic playlist staples. It’s not a perfect retrospective, but when the highs are as thrilling as “Jackie Wilson” and “Crazy Love”, it’s pretty hard to deny Morrison’s legacy as a singles artist. Someday, everyone will remember that he crafted some stellar albums as well.