Warner Bros. 2805-2
Review by Scott Thomas:
A casual listen to Veedon Fleece may lead a cynic to label it Astral Weeks Revisited. The similarities are there (the presence of acoustic instruments, jazz rhythms, and string sections; its obsession with innocence/experience themes), but the methodologies are profoundly different. On Veedon Fleece, for instance, the performances exhibit a Moondance-like precision that is distinct from the free-for-all that was Astral Weeks. Also, the musical influences are more varied; the light jazz of "Fair Play," the country & western of "Bulbs," the pure soul of "Cul De Sac," the Irish folk of "Streets of Arklow." His writing technique has also changed drastically. Whereas Astral Weeks' influences were two-pronged (the twisted imagery and alliterative verbosity of Dylan circa 1964-1965 and Joycean stream of consciousness), Veedon Fleece, like "St. Dominic's Preview" before it, invokes a system of highly personalized symbols.
Veedon Fleece begins not with an energetic dance floor classic like "Domino" or "Wild Night," nor with an opulent masterpiece like "Snow in San Anselmo," but with the lazy, dreamy "Fair Play." In "Fair Play" the singer is reclining in the tall grass of a sun-drenched field where language is appreciated as a source of pure, sensual delight. Cliches, writers' names, and random phrases are repeated for the mere pleasure of feeling and hearing the words roll off the tongue. The relaxed, free-flowing tempo perfectly compliments the carefree lyric and content, disengaged mood of the singer.
In "Fair Play" the literary heroes mentioned by the singer, Poe, Wilde, and Thoreau, though quite different in their individual approaches to literature, all have a romantic bent to their respective philosophies. In "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights" Morrison creates his own romantic hero. The plot and imagery are reminiscent of a grade-B Western: Arden, a gentle, but impulsive man, is attacked by some thugs in the streets of San Francisco. After having "shaved their heads off with hatchet," he becomes a wanted man "livin' with a gun." That line is the first line of the achingly beautiful "Who Was that Masked Man?" in which the myth of Linden Arden is mingled with that of another archetypical outsider, the Lone Ranger.
"Streets of Arklow" signals an abrupt change. Here the backdrop of the mythical American West is replaced by Ireland, and a sense of active engagement supplants the hero worship and daydreams of the first three songs. The singer, who now uses the collective pronoun "we," also seems less isolated. "Streets of Arklow," thanks to its pastoral imagery and traditional Irish trappings, carries an air of timelessness: the journey recounted in the song could have taken place years, decades, or centuries ago. The undercurrent of restlessness is manifested in the return of one of Van's favorite symbols: the gypsy. The protagonist in Veedon Fleece is on a quest. In "Fair Play," "Linden Arden," and "Masked Man," he sought meaning and self-definition in an imagination littered with artifacts from movies, radio, and literature. In "Streets of Arklow" his search for meaning takes him to both his own and his ancestral past.
On "You Don't Pull No Punches But You Don't Push the River" feelings of restlessness lead to a kind of strained motion. The lyrics, pinned on top of two alternating chords and a jerky rhythm, are chanted as if the singer were trying to raise a reluctant spirit. As the lengthy piece unfolds, initial images of childhood and young love evolve into invocations of William Blake and the Veedon Fleece. The Morrison-conceived Veedon Fleece is the symbol of everything yearned for in the preceding songs; spiritual enlightenment, wisdom, community, artistic vision, and love.
With its spasmodic rhythms, "You Don't Pull..." represents forward motion in the face of resistance. "Bulbs," with its crisp C&W tempo, embodies forward motion unimpeded. Similarly, while the earlier song introduces a symbolic landscape populated with Blake, Baba, and the Veedon Fleece, "Bulbs" runs through the world: the symbols (football games, power failures, light bulbs) are appropriately mundane. The song moves briskly, scenes blurring by as though viewed from a fast-moving car. The tone is spiced with sarcasm.
In "Cul De Sac" we encounter the singer after his brief, but dizzying brush with the world; weary, resigned, and in search of consolation. The quest for the Veedon Fleece has become a blind alley and that ideal place where "they don't care who you know as who you really are" is now as far away as the most distant star viewed through the giant reflecting telescope on Mount Palomar. The singer must come to terms with the imperfect world around him: "Relax yourself and take your rest," he advises for though the alley may lead to a dead end, it is paved with eiderdown, a lovely metaphor for sensual pleasure. Musically, "Cul De Sac" is a transcendent piece of pure soul with some electrifying interaction between the singer, pianist, and lead guitarist. It also contains Van's greatest recorded scream.
Veedon Fleece ends as quietly as it began. Two hushed acoustic numbers, "Comfort You" and "Come Here My Love," speak of love and nature as agents of healing, while the lovely "Country Fair" concludes the album with a tinge of nostalgia. The backing is gentle (acoustic bass, guitar, flute), vaporous, and mysterious (the humming of a distant choir, a droning sitar), its rhythmic pulse almost indiscernible. The pastoral bliss and innocence of "Fair Play" is viewed from a long way off: "We were too young to really know..."
Like many other so-called "rock" artists of the late 60's and early 70's, Morrison believed that blues and folk-based musical forms could convey ideas of significant intellectual complexity and subtlety, and he carried out his belief with a finesse unmatched by any of his peers. Drawing inspiration from rock, jazz, folk, blues, soul, C&W, R&B, literature, radio, drama, and religious texts, Veedon Fleece is one of the most ambitious albums ever made and one of the greatest: inexhaustible, eclectic, inspiring, beautifully performed, intellectually challenging, it remains the pinnacle of Morrison's art.
But no one noticed. Critics were indifferent while the general public yawned and got ready for the disco craze.