Van Morrison - Common One

Van Morrison
Common One

Released 1980 on Polydor
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 30/10/2020ce

Though you’d struggle to find Van Morrison’s eighth album in any of those myriad tomes dedicated to albums you must own or “hear before you die”, I humbly contend that ’Common One’ deserves a place in your record collection - at least if you’re not wedded to extreme metal or any other genre which gets your neighbours knocking on the walls. Not that this isn’t as extreme in its own way, for its pervading mood is exceptionally contemplative and peaceful. Even during the album’s foot-tapping moments (and believe me, there are some), the dynamics rarely rise above pianissimo. For much of its 55 minutes, this is as ambient a record as anything Brian Eno has produced; in fact, it achieves a similar vibe to that master’s finest instrumental work, adding melody and - naturally - staggering vocals to the recipe. It is pure, sincere, eclectic, mesmeric, cathartic and - quietly - joyful.

‘Common One’ has only six tracks, the lowest song count on any of Van’s LPs, yet lasts five minutes short of an hour, making it, by a big margin, the longest single studio album he’d made up to that point. This is largely down to just two of its songs, ’Summertime In England’ and ‘When Heart Is Open’, together accounting for more than half of its total duration. These, along with ‘Haunts Of Ancient Peace’, form the heart of this quietly staggering record.

The title of ’Haunts Of Ancient Peace’ says everything you need to know short of actually playing the disc. It’s as laid back an opener as you’re ever likely to have heard, its pulse never veering from the slow, slow throb that erupts from David Hayes’ almost subliminally deep bass note, the first sound on the record. This is night music, dark and atmospheric, yet uplifting at the same time: think the start of Miles Davis’ classic ‘In A Silent Way’ but with vocals. And those vocals: well, this is a Van Morrison record, and Belfast’s finest has never sung better than here. ‘Common One’ reveals a man with a soul and a love of his environment, nature and literature which lie completely at odds with his notoriously dour reputation. Van’s haunts are places of solace and consolation with stories to tell.

‘When Heart Is Open’, the album’s closing track, has much the same vibe as ‘Haunts’ but is even slower, lacking even a rhythmic pulse. Though apparently composed and played on the spot, It’s tonal, accessible, and utterly logical in its static development; I love to just lose myself in its meditative non-groove. Morrison intones a lyric of utmost simplicity absolutely at one with the somnambulistic feel of the song, yet it’s more the sound of his words, and his vocal timbre, that register. Near the end of its quarter hour length, his voice is heard at the lowest end of its range without accompaniment, and time just stands still. It’s my single favourite moment of Van Morrison on record, and that’s from a proud owner of all 41 of his albums. There are so many more magic moments I could detail here but they’re likely to be as personal to me as others will be to you. Find your own joy in this remarkable piece of music.

’Summertime In England’ is the track that most critics focused on to illustrate why, on release, they disliked the album. Its lyric citing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and TS Eliot “smokin’ in the countryside” may have seemed laughable out of context, but that was the problem. Within the song, which alternates between a sprightly, catchy vibe and more contemplative waltz time, those names are revealed as part of a heartfelt love song to impress an unnamed “common one”. It’s a long cut by anyone’s standards yet, like ‘When Heart Is Open’ (and due to the sublimity of the music) doesn’t last a second more than it should. And it ends with Van asking “Can you feel the silence?” - a question that he would ask again on a later album.

The three remaining songs on the record, ’Satisfied’, ‘Wild Honey’ and ’Spirit’, are all fine songs in their own right and would grace any other Van Morrison album of the 80’s and beyond (and Morrison, almost uniquely of the great singer-songwriters who had emerged in the 60’s and 70’s, had a far less embarrassing eighties than the majority of his contemporaries). However, it’s primarily alongside the three longer tracks I’ve mentioned, and the album as a whole, that they work for me.

A word for the players is also essential, I think. Morrison has always had great taste in musicians, and demonstrates that with aplomb here. Everyone on ‘Common One’ not only plays out of his skin, but manages to inhabit the album’s unique sound world as part of its lifeblood. While there’s no shortage of breathtaking instrumental skill going down here - check out the sublime interplay between Mark Isham’s better-than-Miles trumpet and Pee Wee Ellis’ sublime sax halfway through ‘Haunts’ for example - none of these virtuosi ever look to showboat their talent in favour of giving to the common cause of forming a pure piece of art. These dudes - especially Morrison himself, whose voice is very much an instrument in this ensemble - aren’t just making records, they’re creating a ethereal, sonic soundscape which defies the semantic limitations of mere “songs”. Consider the methodology (if it ever existed) of the mighty ’Trout Mask Replica’ but with beauty instead of chaos as the result and you may get somewhere near the idea. Better still, play the record and make your own mind up.

Look, in the half century plus since its release, ’Astral Weeks’ has always - quite rightly - gleaned big critical licks and is still the most highly regarded of its muse’s vast and distinguished back catalogue. It’s neither my place nor intention to dispute that status, since Van Morrison’s second album is as essential to my psyche as the colours of autumn and the memory of my late mother’s voice. But ‘Common One' runs it close - real, real close in my affections, and occupies that same indefinable, uncategorizable place in my record collection. It’s not rock, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel or slick easy listening, yet has elements of all those genres within a near-hour duration. It moves me like very few other records have ever done, and I love it far more than my own clumsy words could ever describe. It ain’t why, why, why… it just IS.

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