by Brittany Wilt
In October 1974, Irish singer / songwriter Van Morrison released his 8th album, Veedon Fleece. This album came after “Morrison’s personal life took a turn in 1973 when he divorced his wife […] He spent months in Ireland reflecting on his life and expressing it by writing new material” (“Van Morrison.” Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Biography in Context. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.). The album consisted of a total of 10 songs.
Northern Ireland was in a state of unrest during the 1970s. 1969 was filled with Catholic civil rights marches and protests by those loyal to the British Crown, the Protestant loyalists. These events led to a violent strife. “By 1972, things had deteriorated so badly that the British government suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and imposed direct rule from London” (The Troubles. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2016, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles). The United States was also having their own issues during the ’70s, including the deadly Kent State Vietnam War protests, the Watergate Scandal, and Roe vs. Wade. Despite the political and social unrest, a phenomenon was going on during the mid- to late-1960s through the 1970s called the British Invasion. The British Invasion was when British music and culture began to be popular in the United States. This exchange of culture across the Atlantic was led by bands such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, and the Yardbirds.
George Ivan Morrison, otherwise known as Van Morrison, was born on Aug. 31, 1945 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He came from a musically talented family with parents who supported his musical goals. Morrison dropped out of school at the “age of fifteen to join the rock-and-roll band the Monarchs” (“Van Morrison.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Biography in Context. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.). At this age, he was well versed on the saxophone, guitar and harmonica. From 1963 to 1966, Morrison was a singer in the British R&B band Them, a part of the British Invasion. Them was significant to Morrison’s career because the band “introduced the United States to Morrison” (Lowe, Donald. “Morrison, Van.” Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. Ed. Stephen Wasserstein, Ken Wachsberger, and Tanya Laplante. Vol. 2. Detroit: Schirmer Reference, 2004. 464-466. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.). Morrison began his solo career in 1967. In 1968, he signed with Warner Brothers and released his first solo album, Astral Weeks, which has come to be known as “one of the most dynamic records of the 1960s” (“Van Morrison.” Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Biography in Context. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.).This album kick started what would become a tradition of releasing “an album every year for three decades” (“Van Morrison.” Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Biography in Context. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.).
Morrison’s legacy and influence spans decades— he has written and recorded more than 500 songs in his lifetime. “Artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, Sinead O’Connor, and Jim Morrison have all acknowledged him as a profound influence on their music” (Biography in Context). .
Morrison’s music has been “described in print with words like Irish-Celtic mysticism, folky rock, soul, R&B, and country” (Contemporary Musicians). While a lot is known about his music, Morrison is labeled as “one of contemporary music’s most intangible stars. His reticent personality and distain for stardom have cast him publicly as an enigma” (Baker’s Biographical Dictionary). While Morrison isn’t a very public person, Veedon Fleece showed a side of him that many hadn’t seen before. In most of his albums, Morrison finds inspiration in the poets William Blake and T. S. Eliot, among others. Veedon Fleece is special because it came in the wake of Morrison’s divorce from his wife, Janet. After his divorce, Morrison spent a few months in Northern Ireland where he worked on the album.
Veedon Fleece is a back-to-the-basics album— it is largely acoustic with stream-of-consciousness lyrics. David Browne from Entertainment Weekly described the album as “achingly moody, pitch-dark-night-of-the-soul ruminations on success and love” (Contemporary Musicians). However, unlike many of Morrison’s other albums, this one received mixed reviews. When it was released, “critics mostly dismissed it and the record-buying public shunned it” (“The Greatest #6: Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison.” Nerd Litter. N.p., 23 Aug. 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.). Moving forward in time, many are still very critical and have had a difficult time finding value in the album. Mark Kernis from The Washington Post said Veedon Fleece “did nothing to enhance Morrison’s fading compositional strengths” (MARK K. “Van Morrison: Moving at His Own Pace.” The Washington Post (1974-Current file), Washington,D.C.,1978.https://login.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/146854123?accountid=13965.).
Jim Miller from Rolling Stone magazine was even more critical. Miller stated that the album “flounders in Morrison’s own clichés” and found that the vocals sounded like a “pinched vocal nerve drowning in porridge.” In general, he found that Veedon Fleece “lacks focus and drive: As a result the album sounds self-indulgent” (Miller, Jim. “Van Morrison: Veedon Fleece.” Rolling Stone. N.p., 02 Jan. 1975. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.).A blog posting from a fan of Morrison found these critiques to be irrelevant. The anonymous listener used the words “mysteries,” “alluring,” “incredible” and “simplicity.”. Like this blogger, I find Veedon Fleece is full of mysteries that only Morrison has the answers to.
Within this single album, Morrison cites Blake, Thoreau, Wilde, Poe, Oscar and the Eternals. Full of historical and cultural references, each song shares some significance with the past. “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” is the longest song on the album at 8 minutes and 50 seconds. This song represents an experimental peak in Morrison’s career with a flute playing throughout. Self-discovery common with transcendentalism is addressed within this song. “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” stands out on the album because it is “a rare and stunning intrusion of violence on the otherwise peaceful album” ( Nerd Litter). The song builds up to the line “cleaved their heads off with a hatchet” then powerfully closes with “He said, ‘someday it may get lonely.’ Now he’s livin’, livin’ with a gun.” “Bulbs” seemed to be a fan favorite with Morrison’s forceful vocals and the “clipped, almost countryesque guitar licks” that accompanied the song. References to Killarney Lake and the Streets of Arklow were also make. Arklow is on the east coast of Ireland and it the site of the bloodiest battle of 1798 when the Irish were rebelling against British rule. Along with these heavier, denser song were a few love songs— “Comfort You,” “Come Here My Love” and “Country Fair.”
I find Veedon Fleece’s mystery and simplicity intriguing. I enjoyed that Morrison was able to adapt his voice to each line of the lyrics to produce a smooth flow that is only interrupted by his own howls and “throat-clearing guffaws” (Nerd Litter). I think this album is full of raw material and that the harsh critics should take another listen.