Moondance trumps Astral Weeks. If the rockists choose Astral Weeks as Van’s best then the poptimists will then choose Moondance. It is not merely a more ‘accessible’ or ‘palatable’ record, but also matches (or possibly outdoes) what seem to Astral Weeks’ main draws and objects of acclaim: the emotional, streamy-dreamy spirituality and sense of place. But because the Moondance’s songs are framed within an approachable jazz-soul context (as opposed to Astral Weeks’ more obviously suitable ethereal folk), its passion, depth and emotional profundity are not commented on as much and are lost on many.
Van’s greatest skill is his impressionist evocation of a time, place or reminiscence. This manifests itself in many of his greatest songs, where he captures the time and essence of an experience from childhood. His first great attempt at this was Cyprus Avenue: a slow mesmeric, repetitive arrangement bathed in his stream-of-consciousness lyrics in which he allows the past to merge with the present in a calm exorcism of profound memories. Moondance’s equivalent was And it Stoned Me. He describes the song in an interview:
”I suppose I was about twelve years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension’. That’s what the song is about.”
This is all very mystical and Proustian. And so is Cyprus Avenue. But where And it Stoned Me wins is, through the aforementioned tangibility and accessibility of his arrangement (it has a certain bounce to it), he makes that ‘quasi-mystical’ experience even more relatable; it has both the immediacy of a great pop song and the lasting meaning and power of, well, Astral Weeks. And I do relate to it deeply.
So: to the learned poptimist, Moondance is the golden mean – the moment Van realized that he could be both commercially successful, further his artistry and retain without restraint his emotions and passions at the same time in perfect tandem. For this, it is not only Van’s greatest but one of the greatest albums ever constructed. And in this piece I have only written about one of the things that makes it great.
Here is Caravan, featuring the best use of vocal multi-tracking ever committed to tape at the end.
A Recent Revelation
Bob Dylan once called John Prine ‘pure Proustian existentialism’. He’s actually like a more modest Hank Williams with a major in Philosophy, but Dylan is essentially right. I first bought this album and never gave it a proper listen and, while deeming his tunes funny, uncommonly mature, and satisfying, I never fully realised the depth of those meaningful waters beneath the whistleable surface until further listens.
Loudon Wainrwight, in ‘Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues’, chooses Prine as one of the people (along with himself) listed and categorised in their era as Dylan-ites (his ‘dumbass kid brothers’). Unlike Dylan, however, Prine’s modesty is the reason he’s not afraid to frame himself as the bigoted and flawed American narrator; and more-so than Dylan, he finds the redemption in those characters. Though complex in his own, unassuming way, he identifies with the simple man. When talking about political issues, he is never conceitedly overwrought (see Dylan’s Masters of War) but is instead hilariously funny and therefore more insightful. But he’s a poet and he sure dun’ know it.
Maybe we can thus conclude: Whilst writers like Dylan flourished in the rapidly changing, hopeful colours of the 1960’s, Prine flourishes in the 70s’ dull beige-browns of ironic, but cheerful acceptance. This country-ish debut, though, finds him still with flecks of those hopeful colours in his eyes as he sits on his hay bale throne, before he took his Sweet Revenge.
It’s an historic moment. It’s the first time a songwriter has won the prize, and, as expected, there has been a counterblast in the form of high-pitched, orotund murmur-beef from both the literary conservatives, as well as one Irvine Welsh who said ”I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Here’s a contrast: while writers like Irvine Welsh publish one astounding masterpiece and end up peddling the same formula (in his case: what I would call the ‘post-post-punk-modernist-seamy-druggy-arty-shocking’ post-80’s acclaimed literature cliché) half-successfully and to consistent, mild enthusiastic acclaim, Bob Dylan has created albums that have been regarded as among the greatest works of popular music, but most importantly, awful albums that have elicited headline remarks such as Greil Marcus’ blunt, gunshot ‘What is this shit?‘. Ironically it is this inherent inconsistency and flaw in Bob Dylan’s work that has made him as vital, exciting and genuine today as he has been for the last fifty years.
However, this comparison could be redundant, as everyone should accept that there is an essential difference between writers and songwriters; the poem and the song, the novel and the album. I choose to end with the truest piece of writing ever published about rock ‘n’ roll and popular music in general from (guess it) Mr. Robert Christgau: ”I love rock and roll because, unlike literature, it’s not caught in the cerebral, self-referential, and ultimately defeatist cul-de-sac of highbrow modernism. Physical and popular, it points the way out of (or at least waves at) a cultural dilemma in which only prodigious feats of deep feeling can achieve the political and economic equality the world depends on.” If ever there were a Nobel Prize for Music, it is by this ending criteria that it should be judged. Maybe this is what Bob deserves.
Deeply sorry to all the hip-hop, death metal and especially psychobilly fans out there. Just not my thang. Here’s the extremely backward-thinking (nothing here post-1990) list of my favourite popular songs ever recorded at the moment. Some are so good, they might even warrant individual posts. 88 is just a lovely, round number.
The Weight – The Band
When You Awake – The Band
Sloop John B – The Beach Boys
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – The Beatles
The Ballad of El Goodo – Big Star
Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
Suffragette City – David Bowie
A New Career in a New Town – David Bowie
Expecting to Fly – Buffalo Springfield
Draft Morning – The Byrds
La Princesse Perdue – Camel
Oh, Lonesome Me – Ray Charles
Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
Janie Jones – The Clash
Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff
Ramble Tamble – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Layla – Derek and the Dominoes
Northern Sky – Nick Drake
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Bob Dylan
Visions of Johanna – Bob Dylan
Tangled Up in Blue – Bob Dylan
Born in Time – Bob Dylan
The Killing Moon – Echo and the Bunnymen
Stay With Me – Faces
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You – Aretha Franklin
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye
Uncle John’s Band – The Grateful Dead
Forget Me Not – Roy Harper
Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix
Not Fade Away – Buddy Holly
Disorder – Joy Division
The Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Tea for One – Led Zeppelin
When the Levee Breaks – Led Zeppelin
Ten Years Gone – Led Zeppelin
Strawberry Flats – Little Feat
Mercenary Territory (Live) – Little Feat
Alone Again Or – Love
Carey – Joni Mitchell
And it Stoned Me – Van Morrison
Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette – Moving Hearts
Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
Living Without You – Randy Newman
Rosemary – Randy Newman
Local Girls – Graham Parker
Hearts On Fire – Gram Parsons
San Tropez – Pink Floyd
Time – Pink Floyd
Elvis Presley – Treat Me Nice
Darlin Nikki – Prince
Hello in There – John Prine
Far From Me – John Prine
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
My House – Lou Reed
Radio Free Europe – R.E.M.
Replacements – Bastards of Young
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
Loving Cup – The Rolling Stones
Graceland – Paul Simon
Family Affar – Sly and the Family Stone
The Headmaster Ritual – The Smiths
Cemetry Gates – The Smiths
Incident on 57th Street – Bruce Springsteen
Rosalita (Come out Tonight) – Bruce Springsteen
King of the World – Steely Dan
Aja – Steely Dan
As – Stevie Wonder
He’s Misstra Know-it-All – Stevie Wonder
Every Picture Tells A Story – Rod Stewart
The Rainbow – Talk Talk
See No Evil – Television
When I Get to the Border – Richard Thompson
Rock and Roll – The Velvet Underground
And You And I – Yes
Ambulance Blues – Neil Young
Lookout Joe – Neil Young
Powderfinger – Neil Young
Pocahontas – Neil Young
Lawyers, Guns and Money – Warren Zevon
Here’s Little Feat’s Mercenary Territory performed live. Wait ’till the 1:55 mark where things get truly eargasmic.
Blood on the Tracks
Bob Dylan’s 15th studio album is one of great emotional weight. The beauty of this record is its offhand, shaky musical attitude: at roughly the 4:02 second mark in Tangled up in Blue, either the bassist or guitarist hits a wrong note. I always listen out for this moment, as to me it is one of the great affirmations of one of my essential rules of truly great popular music: Sometimes imperfections can create the greatest perfection of all. As the song gradually becomes more frantic and desperate, this accidental wrong note (spurred by that general attitude of despondent musical indiscriminacy that permeated the album’s recording) ends up carrying the greatest meaning.
Blood on the Tracks, though I rather dislike the angry, rambling Idiot Wind and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, remains the most honest 51 minutes of Dylan on record. I must mention that the rest of the album is pure gold as well, and is music of unfathomably vivid, hypnotic and commanding lyrical and songwriting power. It is recorded and produced in such a way that gives a kind of murky, comforting background ambience: Listening to it on a rainy, winter evening in dim, warm light is among the most evocative experiences offered by any record.
Here’s Meet Me in the Morning; maybe the exemplar of this atmosphere I describe. Check out the magnificent solo of what I believe is a fuzzed-out pedal steel…
This concert recording from Massey Hall, Toronto 1971 shows Neil Young at his most contemplative and singer-songwriter-ish. Don’t let that put you off early Neil, as even at this stage he had the edge, darkness and wit to make James Taylor and Jackson Browne look like singing nuns.
Part of what’s special about this album is its early showcasing of songs from Harvest, which would later become popular classics; Old Man, Heart of Gold, etc. As an extended showcase of Young’s songwriting and acoustic guitar ability, this live record, to me, is unparalleled. The feint, shy backstories he gives about the origin of the songs and the beauty and depth of the songs themselves show that this man’s lyricism and songwriting capacity seems inexhaustible. Not even Dylan could approach the raw honesty and indecipherably complex flow of emotion in Young’s work, let alone sustain it almost without falter for some 50 years. Even his flops have meaning. ‘I know that some of you don’t understand’, he sings with despondent sorrow in The Needle and the Damage Done.
Live at Massey Hall shows us better than almost any album Neil Young’s modesty and humility towards his audience. He neither tries to desperately entertain them nor shuns them in uncaring gloom. He simply plays and lets his emotion flow directly from his voice and fingers, totally naked. He treats the performance not merely as a setlist but as a 67-minute travel through his mind in all its angst, happiness and obscurity. As the original review in the Toronto Star says: ‘There is, not to put too fine a point to it, no crap about him.’
But even Neil knows you should always end a show with a stompin’ hoedown…
And even his hoedowns are deeply personal.
On the video above, the song lasts around 2 minutes, and the raucous applause goes on almost ceaselessly for 3 minutes. Make of that what you will…