Mercury (Polydor 839 262-2)
Review by Scott Thomas:
"Whenever Gods Shines His Light" is, in its own way, as shocking as "Haunts of Ancient Peace" was in 1980. First, with an unabashedly radio-conscious piano riff, it represents the full-blown return of the popsmith who wrote "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Wavelength." Lyrically, the song's message of religious celebration is undiluted by the usual doses of mysticism and pantheism. Had Van become a Born Again Christian? "Contacting My Angel," which revisits the pastoral/erotic mysticism of Beautiful Vision, provides the answer: the angel in this song "satisfies." (It is here, in this gentle, free-flowing piece, that we first hear the acoustic guitar of Dublin sessionman Arty McGlynn. McGlynn's instrument, panned far to the left, is the voice that unifies the remaining tracks on Avalon Sunset.)
After a throwaway ("I'd Love to Write Another Song"), Morrison offers up the lovely and much-loved jazz-pop ballad "Have I Told You Lately." Fiachra Trench's string arrangements are the embodiment of good taste: they are vigorous, but never overbearing, while Neil Drinkwater's impressionistic piano solo is probably the highlight of the song. When traversing this kind of musical landscape, the harder edges of Morrison's voice enable him to negotiate the fine line between tasteful pop balladry and schmaltz.
Morrison also takes a chance with "Coney Island." On Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, the self-consciously literary "Rave On, John Donne" smacked of pretension. Here, however, where the subject is a Sunday afternoon trip to the country, Van fills his Whitmanesque free verse cadences with vivid images of the Irish landscape, picturesque colloquialisms, and the exotic (to American ears)sound of Irish place names. Once again, the contrast between the flowing string/synth arrangements and Morrison's gruff, working class voice is a crucial factor in the piece's unlikely success.
In "I'm Tired, Joey Boy," an under-appreciated classic, Van assumes the voice of a young man in the city who longs for his native countryside. His homesickness, conveyed to the listener in familiar, conversational tones reminiscent of "Sense of Wonder," is tempered by a mature acceptance of events (as opposed to self-pity) and a keen sense of humor. The string arrangement is reminiscent of Randy Newman.Avalon Sunset is also graced by one of Morrison's greatest spiritual anthems, "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?," in which the confident exaltations of "Whenever God Shines His Light" give way to self-doubt and yearning.
The next two songs, "Orangefield" and "Daring Night," both depend heavily on their lush arrangements, but whereas the former is endearing, the latter simply dresses up worn-out ideas in new, pretty clothes. One of the best places to hear Morrison pull a piece of music out of the valley to a lofty peak is "A Town Called Paradise" from No Guru No Method No Teacher. "Daring Night" sounds like an exercise in comparison, but the net effect is not unpleasant.
The album closes with the stately "These Are the Days," a poetic testament of faith which would not be out of place on Leonard Cohen's Various Positions. Though nostalgia would be the dominant emotional state of Morrison's next few releases, this song proclaims "there is no past" and ends with a seeming contradiction: "These are the days / That will last forever / You've got to hold them / In your heart." "Coney Island, "Orangefield," and "When Will I Ever Learn" all in their own way depict time and change as fundamental realities of existence. Instead of contradicting this assertion, the last line of "These Are the Days" underscores the primacy and power of memory and thus points us to the preoccupation of childhood and adolescence that would flourish on his subsequent albums.