A Sense of Wonder
Mercury (Polydor 843 116-2)
Review by Scott Thomas:
We begin with "Tore Down A La Rimbaud," a Homeric call to the Muses, which communicates joy at possessing the artistic gift and an acknowledgment of the fragility of that endowment. "You know it's hard sometimes," the singer laments while confronted with a blank sheet of paper. (For this piece, and for much of Sense of Wonder, the backing band adopts the ethereal R&B sound of the preceding live album as opposed to the meditative timbre of Beautiful Vision or the gnarled jazz of Common One.) The songs that follow "Tore Down a la Rimbaud" tell us that the artist's vision is not shackled by the constraints of time ("Ancient of Days"), language (the instrumental "Evening Meditation), or intellect ("The Master's Eyes").
Morrison's cover of the Ray Charles tune "What Would I Do?" is the album's fulcrum. The songs that come before allow us to see through the eyes of the artist. The songs that come after show the artist moving through the world. Morrison's version, even more than the Charles original, plays up the piece's underlying ambiguity: is the lyric addressed to God or a lover? Again and again in Morrison's work, going all the way back to "Astral Weeks," love is presented as the rendezvous point for the earthly and the spiritual. In the transitional "What Would I Do?" the artist turns our gaze from Heaven to the sensual world.
Morrison does not tell us much about the visionary who speaks in "Sense of Wonder." The locale seems to be Ireland. The time is sometime during the 20th Century. (A "picturehouse" is mentioned.) Though his identity is shrouded in mystery, he speaks with a tone of familiarity: "I said I could describe the leaves for Samuel / And what it means for you and me." It's a marvelous piece. Having created his own folk hero, Morrison has us overhear a conversation where this unknown visionary speaks to someone who has experienced the "sense of wonder" firsthand. (The decision to sideline the Van Morrison Band in favor of the electric/Celtic band Moving Hearts was a wise one. The fetching soprano sax fills, acoustic guitar figures, pipes, and nimble drum patterns enhance the song's atmosphere of mystery and play.)
It is at the electrified Celtic dance piece "Boffyflow and Spike" where Morrison begins to lose control of this project. While the spry instrumental makes for pleasant listening, we are already yearning to be told more about the visionary and the price exacted on him by the world. This piece tells us nothing.
Next up is Van's cover of Mose Alison's "If You Only Knew." While perfectly competent and thematically consistent, it is jarring in both style (down and dirty R&B) and posture (corrosive cynicism). (This was not entirely Morrison's fault. He had originally slated an arresting interpretation of the WB Yeats poem "Crazy Jane on God" for this slot, but the Yeats estate nixed its release at the last moment.) The realization that artistic vision can come only through great sacrifice is better served by Morrison's adoption of two somewhat obscure William Blake pieces. "Let the Slave" begins with a vision of both spiritual and physical liberation ("Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field") and demonstrates the visionary's ability to emancipate his own soul and the souls of others through his art. "Let the Slave," which was set to music by Mike Westbrook, then segues into the spoken "The Price of Experience" which tells us that the experience, wisdom, and empathetic sense required of the artist "is bought with the price of all that man hath." The upbeat closing track, however, seeks to reassure would-be visionaries that "all your trials have not been in vain": the end result is "a new kind of man," but we feel we have gotten here too soon. We haven't been shown enough trials, enough sacrifice to warrant this relief at liberation.