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Hymns to the Silence

Polydor 849 026-2
(Released September, 1991)
(also issued in a limited edition book-type format)

CD1:

  1. Professional Jealousy (3:42)
  2. I'm Not Feeling It Anymore (6:34)
  3. Ordinary Life (3:29)
  4. Some Peace of Mind (6:24)
  5. So Complicated (3:18)
  6. I Can't Stop Loving You (3:54)
  7. Why Must I Always Explain (3:50)
  8. Village Idiot (3:13)
  9. See Me Through Part II (Just A Closer Walk With Thee) (3:10)
  10. Take Me Back (9:11)
    Total time: (47:22)

CD2:

  1. By His Grace (2:34)
  2. All Saints Day (2:28)
  3. Hymns to the Silence (9:42)
  4. On Hyndford Street (5:17)
  5. Be Thou My Vision (3:49)
  6. Carrying A Torch (4:26)
  7. Green Mansions (3:38)
  8. Pagan Streams (3:38)
  9. Quality Street (3:57)
  10. It Must Be You (4:08)
  11. I Need Your Kind of Loving (4:31)
    Total time: (48:43)

Musicians:
See production information for this album, or click on track timings above for production information on that track.

Review by Scott Thomas:
As the new decade started in earnest, Morrison seemed trapped in a time warp. While most of his contemporaries had either retired or adapted themselves to the one album every four years / 3 videos per album / major world tour treadmill that defined the post-MTV music business, Van tried his best to put out one album each year as if it were still 1970. Less than twelve months after Enlightenment came the sprawling, two disc collection Hymns to the Silence. Like most non-live, non-greatest hits multi-disc sets, The Beatles' White Album being the most famous example, this album has its share of ill-advised experiments ("Pagan Streams" and "See Me Through II"), filler ("I Need Your Kind of Loving"), and one truly rancid song ("Village Idiot"). Sonically, Hymns to the Silence is rougher than Enlightenment, less beautiful, but while it may lack the studied perfection of its predecessor, its best moments carry a greater emotional resonance.

The sound on Hymns to the Silence is stripped down with Morrison gamely handling what little guitar work needs to be done. When horns are required (as on "Peace of Mind" and "It Must Be You"), Van brings out the lone but driven tenor of Candy Dulfer, and with the exception of "Carrying a Torch" and "It Must Be You," the strings have all but disappeared. This makes pianist Neil Drinkwater and organist Georgie Fame the stars by default, and they make the most of it. Stylistically, Hymns to the Silence is a cornucopia. We have some blues ("Ordinary Life," "So Complicated"), gospel ("By His Grace"), country ("I Can't Stop Loving You"), made-for-adult-radio pop ("Peace of Mind," "It Must Be You"), pop balladry ("Carrying a Torch"), recitations ("On Hyndford Street," "Pagan Streams"), and even an Anglican hymn (the terrific "Be Thou My Vision")!

The opening song, "Professional Jealousy," is a landmark in that it addresses a topic which, as far as I can tell, has never been dealt with in a pop song before. The reference to "delivering the product on time" begins a systematic deflation of the myth of the creative artist/performer that Van himself promulgated on Sense of Wonder. Again and again on Disc One, the singer reminds us that he is "just a man" and that performing is "just a job you know / And not sweet lorraine." This is as close to purely confessional songwriting as Van has ever come. For Morrison (I believe it is Morrison himself speaking here), the artist's life has turned out to be hollow and unfulfilling: "I'm not feeling it anymore!" he exclaims in one of his greatest songs ever. By the time we get to "Why Must I Always Explain?" this gnawing discontent has turned into annoyance and impatience. Here Van's grouchy complaints about "parasites" and "people too lazy to know" are couched in the album's most irresistible melody. It is wonderfully mean-spirited. After being drawn in by the happy-go-lucky accordion and instantly hummable tune, the more rabid members of Van's fan base are promptly and savagely attacked.

These kind of uneasy juxtapositions make for some of the best and worst moments on Hymns to the Silence. Morrison, for instance, takes on Ray Charles's soul/pop version of "I Can Stop Loving You," but where Charles had a string section, Morrison has the Chieftains create a boozy, Celtic backdrop. His reading of the hymn "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" is less successful. During a quiet interlude in the music where an ordained gospel singer like the Reverend James Cleveland would have launched into a sermon, Morrison breaks out into a stream of adolescent memories similar to those found in "The Days before Rock n Roll." The disconnect between a sermon, where one strives to teach the congregation about universal truths, and Morrison's highly personal free verse is simply too great, and the piece is a failure.

Disc One ends with the spare, lengthy, powerful "Take Me Back" where the singer desperately begs his Muse and fellow musicians to transport him back to his adolescence when "the world made more sense" and the thrill of discovering music was still ahead of him. The song is made all the more compelling by the knowledge that, no matter how long the song goes on and how many memories the singer invokes, he can never go back.

Disc One, with its unflinching emotional honesty, is Morrison's Plastic Ono Band. Disc Two offers healing in love songs of every size, shape, and variety from up-tempo ("All Saints Day") to hushed ("Carrying a Torch"), from the very major ("Hymns to the Silence") to the inconsequential ("Quality Street").

Hymns to the Silence, despite its foibles and all-consuming length, should not be underestimated. If condensed down to one 72 minute CD, it would easily rank with his greatest work, and it is also serves as a dubious benchmark. Morrison, now back to his roots, would stay there…forever… Also, it is the last in a string of mostly fine recordings that began with Into the Music. The "light out of the darkness" will shine only fitfully for the next few years, and, by the time we reach the late 90's, the greatest compliment we will bestow on a new Van Morrison CD will be to proclaim it "the best since Hymns."

Notes:
Hymns to the Silence also appeared in a limited edition of 15,000 hand-numbered copies. The edition included a linen bound book and a booklet with lyrics and an essay written by Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Wild. Following is the text of that essay, sent in by Michael Burns

"Listening to the music of Van Morrison has always seemed like something of a religious experience. The reason for this is, at least in part, that one often sensed that singing was something of a religious experience for Morrison himself. When asked about this topic last year, Morrison answered with typical blunt honesty. "Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't," he said. "Sometimes it's an experience and sometimes it's just a gig. Sometimes you get halfway there, sometimes you get all the ways there. It's never the same. You work from the chaos. You work the material. There's no set pattern. You just do the best you can do, and that's about it. What I do is as much a mystery to me as it is to you"

Exactly how to explain what Van Morrison does - and how he does it - remains such a genuinely remarkable and enduring mystery because he is such an extraordinary and distinctive artist. Even on those occasions when Van Morrison only gets halfway there, he still manages to get much further than nearly any other singer - songwriter alive. And when he gets all the way there - as he has done regularily throughout the last three decades and as he continues to do once again on Hymns To The Silence - the results could give even the greatest doubter among us one extremely soulful blast of faith. In the songs of Van Morrison, as in life itself, the sacred and the secular have often intermingled in fascinating ways. In the breathtaking title track of Hymns To The Silence, the romantic thoughts of the narrator for his loved one lead quite organically to a consideration of his love for "the One." Obviously, this is awesomely ambitious material for a writer to tackle in the context of a single song, yet Morrison is the sort of poet who is more than up to the challenge. He is, after all,a man with a mission, a man totally into the music and into the mystic - a huge talent unafraid of taking on life's bigger questions. He knows, as he sings in "By His Grace," "You've got to live your religion / Deep inside, when you try / For the kingdom on high."

Hymns To The Silence offers the listener a potent double shot of the singular genius of Van the Man, who at age forty-five remains an artist still very much at the height of his creative powers. He continues to prove himself a vocalist of singular style and grace - for my money, only Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra are even in his league in terms of phrasing. Yet, unlike both of these great vocalists, Morrison is also a major songwriter, a fact underscored once more by new memorable compositions on Hymns To The Silence like "Why Must I Always Explain," "Carrying A Torch," " I'm Not Feeling It Anymore," "Quality Street " (an ultra-romantic gem which Morrison co-wrote with Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John), "Village Idiot" and the album's title track.

The first double studio recording that Morrison has ever released, Hymns To The Silence is, musically speaking, a rather panoramic view of where he's been and where he's going, touching on jazz, soul, folk, blues, country, rock and gospel music over the course of it's twenty-one songs. Finally, though, it all fits most comfortably into a category all it's own - Van Morrison music. Many songs on Hymns To The Silence feature the renowned keyboardist, singer and bandleader, Georgie Fame, who's contributed so mightily to Morrison's recent concert tours. A number of tracks on the new album - including a memorable cover of the classic Ray Charles smash, "I Can't Stop Loving You " - reunite Morrison with the Irish traditionalists, The Chieftains, with whom he teamed for the brilliant Irish Heartbeat collection. On a song like "On Hyndford Street," meanwhile, Morrison needs very little assistance as he once again delivers the latest installment in his powerful stream-of-consciousness autobiography.

From Van Morrison's days as leader of the ferocious Belfast band Them offering up the primal rock masterpiece "Gloria" to the early solo days of "Brown Eyed Girl," to the extraordinary era of Astral Weeks; Moondance; Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic's Preview to his current resurgence at PolyGram that has seen him deliver a series of assured adult masterpieces like Poetic Champions Compose; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; Irish Heartbeat and Enlightenment, the constant in Morrison's career has always been his brave and unwavering commitment to following his muse where it leads him, with no apparent concern for the fads and trends of the day.

Morrison still vividly recalls when he first got into the music. "I remember my father took me to town one day and there was this jazz band playing on the back of a truck," Morrison said last year. "I was, like, five. I got into it because I saw people blowing horns and singing. I thought it was great that people could do that. So I suppose in terms of why I got into it, some people would say I got into it for all the wrong reasons. It wasn't about being a star or wearing certain clothes or having a certain image. The only stars I knew were in the sky. It was just the idea that you could get up and sing and play." For Morrison, what he does is not some glamorous,well thought-out career. "What I do is work," he said. "Hard work.When I look at what I've done, it's like if a carpenter builds a set of shelves or something, he goes, Yeah, I've done that. It feels like that. It feels like you've done a lot of work and there it is. There's this idea out there that you're supposed to have a master plan. The thing is there really wasn't a plan in all this. Everything was basically based in survival. It all comes down to survival, and you can't intellectualize survival, because either you survive or you don't."

Thankfully, in a tough business that hardly encourages such single-minded artistry, Van Morrison has survived, and, indeed, he has flourished. Without him, it is doubtful that major artists like U2 and Bruce Springsteen would have made the music they have, or that up and coming bands like the Waterboys and Hothouse Flowers would even exist. And from the days of "Gloria," "Here Comes The Night" and "Brown Eyed Girl" to the remarkable success of the recent The Best Of Van Morrison collection, the public has connected with Morrison's work, despite his failure to conform or condescend in any way to the perceived popular tastes. Like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, Van Morrison is one of the very few artists during the rock 'n' roll era who has not only built a brilliant body of work, he's also changed the very nature of popular music - what it can communicate, what it can mean.

Back in 1976, Greil Marcus, writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, made a few comments about Morrison that continue to be completely relevant. "Morrison," he wrote, "remains a singer that can be compared with no performer in the history of rock and roll, a singer who cannot be pinned down, dismissed, nor fitted into anyone's expectations. He is a conundrum ... Morrison, it can be seen now, is a man on a quest; it will be a long one, but there are listeners who will be with him for the duration.

A decade and a half later, they are still with him on his quest, joined by more recent converts to the cause. It has been a truly amazing journey for all concerned. Whatever your personal spiritual convictions may be, Van Morrison's Hymns To The Silence is something in which to believe.

David Wild
Senior Writer, Rolling Stone

Factoid:
Issue 5 of "Into the Music", a long-lost fanzine out of Ireland, reported that Hymns to the Silence was originally to have been titled Ordinary Life. That was confirmed by a May 1991 Polygram newsletter when the album was first scheduled for a June 17th 1991 release.

Part of the van-the-man.info unofficial website

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