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The Philosopher's Stone

Exile (PolyGram 314 531 789-2)
(Released June 16, 1998)

Disc 1:

  1. Really Don't Know (3:37)
  2. Ordinary People (5:20)
  3. Wonderful Remark (8:01)
  4. Not Supposed to Break Down (5:24)
  5. Laughing in the Wind (4:10)
  6. Madame Joy (4:23)
  7. Contemplation Rose (5:15)
  8. Don't Worry About Tomorrow (5:20)
  9. Try For Sleep (6:05)
  10. Lover's Prayer (3:57)
  11. Drumshanbo Hustle (4:48)
  12. Twilight Zone (8:23)
  13. Foggy Mountain Top (5:27)
  14. Naked in the Jungle (4:36)
  15. There There Child (3:01)
    Total time: (77:55)

Disc 2:

  1. The Street Only Knew Your Name (6:25)
  2. John Henry (5:48)
  3. Western Plain (5:42)
  4. Joyous Sound (2:30)
  5. I Have Finally Come to Realize (5:09)
  6. Flamingoes Fly (6:28)
  7. Stepping Out Queen Part 2 (4:26)
  8. Bright Side of the Road (4:02)
  9. Street Theory (4:54)
  10. Real Real Gone (3:45)
  11. Showbusiness (9:21)
  12. For Mr. Thomas (4:15)
  13. Crazy Jane on God (4:05)
  14. Song of Being a Child (4:09)
  15. High Spirits (4:21)
    Total time: (75:26)

Production information for the album is available here, or click on the track times above for production info on a specific track.

Review by Scott Thomas:
Morrison's fixation on the past, a hallmark of his work in the 1990s, never included the more recent past of his own recording career - that is until 1998's The Philosopher's Stone. This dream album collects previously unreleased recordings from 1971-1988 on two CDs. Unlike similar vault scourings from The Beatles and Bob Dylan, The Philosopher's Stone seeks to mask its historical nature. The packaging is devoid of archival photographs and scholarly essays. The title is more suggestive than descriptive. In fact, it is only the phrase "Unreleased Tapes Vol. 1", appearing almost sheepishly on the inside of the CD case, and the recording years hidden among the track listings that tell the consumer this is not Van's follow-up to The Healing Game. Perhaps this was intentional. Perhaps Morrison wanted to prove that historical details are irrelevant: great music is great music. It does not matter when it was committed to tape. If so, he proved his point - perhaps too well. The Philosopher's Stone has a bead on being his best album of the decade even though its newest recording was a decade old!

It is appropriate that we start with the blues of "Really Don't Know" and "Ordinary People" since, on The Philosopher's Stone, the blues dominate. It is also here that we first pick up on one of the main lessons of this endeavor: most of these songs were left off of original releases, not because they are inferior, but because Morrison understood with unerring certainty what he wanted each album, as a self-contained work of art, to say to the listener. "Ordinary People," a searing confession of emotional instability from 1971, would have cast a pall on the ebullient Tupelo Honey.

After a version of "Wonderful Remark" that takes itself far less seriously than the over-produced re-recording on The Best of Van Morrison, we encounter a series of superb Hard Nose the Highway-era pieces. Here we have the energetic flights of "Laughing in the Wind" and "Madame Joy," the evocative glimpses and dusky Spanish melody of "Contemplation Rose," and the uncharacteristic social commentary of "Not Supposed to Break Down."

A contender for the title of "greatest lost & found masterpiece" is "Try For Sleep," an eerie, pre-dawn portrayal of a disintegrating relationship. Sung in a haunted falsetto with muted trumpet and electric guitar skirting around the singer's voice like weary fireflies, the tone migrates from pleading to bored to sarcastic to resigned to its final wails of sadness.

Van also utilizes falsetto on "Twilight Zone," a bizarre song constructed around private jokes and symbols whose meaning is known only to the singer. It is up to the voice, piano, bass, and drums to wring universal truths out of the resolutely personal. Too odd to be truly compelling, the musicianship is irreproachable.

The James Brown funk of "Naked in the Jungle" points the way to the next batch of recordings and Morrison's post-Veedon Fleece retirement. As we quickly discover, Van was quite active during his long mid-70s respite. Here we see him retreating (temporarily as it turns out) from the fierce experimentation of Veedon Fleece and "Twilight Zone" and turning, as he would again in the 1990s, back to his R&B roots. The recordings from the lost album sport more instrumentation than those that immediately precede them chronologically. We hear background singers, horns (played by Van himself), and percussion. Take note of his respectful, but radical interpretations of "Western Plains" and "John Henry," songs associated with Leadbelly. His throat-shredding vocals on the latter would be the envy of even John Lennon.

Since these sessions failed to make it to the marketplace, Morrison was able to raid some of the material for later release. However, when re-recorded, it was almost always to the detriment of the song. The version of "The Street Only Knew Your Name" from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is a pale, shameful copy of the crisp soul version found here. The strenuous "Flamingoes Fly" from A Period of Transition was, as it turns out, an ill-conceived remake of a lovely, ethereal song originally taken at a pacific, jazz-inflected tempo.

This brings us to another gem. "I Have Finally Come to Realize" occupies the same emotional territory as John Prine's "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)." Here the singer, now wise with experience, assures us that getting angry and frustrated at one's inability to change the world or oneself is a waste of energy and ultimately self-destructive. The song communicates a mature acceptance of whatever life reveals and is very Christian in its blissfully fatalistic tone and the singer's acknowledgment that he is merely a "tiny, tiny grain of sand". The performance is enhanced by tasteful synthesizer colorations and a fine sax solo by Van himself.

We enter Morrison's second great period of recording with Into the Music outtakes. While almost everything else on The Philosopher's Stone sounds ready-for-release, these two recordings are demo-like. We have a harmonica-driven, horn-free "Bright Side of the Road" and an interesting, deleted coda to "Stepping Out Queen." In the end, though, these tracks exist as insights into the making of a classic album and fail to excite on their own.

Going onward into the 80s, we see again that, unlike Bob Dylan of the same period, we never have to second-guess Morrison's judgment when it comes to selecting tracks for finished albums. "Street Theory," while good in its own right, was left off of Common One presumably because of its similarity to "Satisfied." "Real Real Gone," with its buoyant Carribean-influenced rhythms, would have broken the meditative mood of Common One. The same with "Showbusiness" on Beautiful Vision. This piece, along with the earlier "Drumshanbo Hustle," are two early examples of the music business bashing that Morrison would make into a cottage industry during the 90s. However, at this stage of his career, Morrison cloaked his dissatisfaction in a black humor that has been replaced, in more recent songs of this type, by paranoia and self-pity. In "Showbusiness" our enjoyment is reinforced by Chris Michie's fluid guitar lines playing Hurbert Sumlin to Van's Howlin Wolf.

After a fascinating cover of Robin Williamson's "For Mr. Thomas," we are in the midst of another lost classic, "Crazy Jane on God." In 1984 Morrison was refused permission to include this masterful adaptation of a W.B. Yeats poem on Sense of Wonder, and "If You Only Knew" was quickly dispatched as a replacement. One can imagine "Crazy Jane on God" in place of "If You Only Knew" and a Sense of Wonder that flows much better, sonically, attitudinally, and thematically, than the imperfect work handed to us by history.

After Morrison and June Boyce's moving recitation of Peter Handke's lovely poem "Song of Being a Child," we end disappointingly with "High Spirits," an Irish Heartbeat leftover where Morrison's only role is some wordless singing in unison with the Chieftains.

Notes:
The cover image for this CD shows the Stones of Stenness, a standing stone site on the Orkney Islands, Scotland.

  • This 2-CD set was originally due for official release on July 16, 1996. See this Discography entry for the originally (slightly different) announced track list, and a brief chronology of the genesis of the project.

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

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