The most important album ever made by a popular artist.
Van Morrison had generated a couple of hits with Gloria, "Here Comes the Night," and "Brown Eyed Girl," and this was obviously a project he was intent on pursuing, come hell or high water. It's a marvel that it actually happened, when you think of the pressure put on artists for radio hits. This surely didn't produce any of that. Of course, it was 1968, and things were in that hazy hippie world where barriers seemed to be swirling and fluid.
This was a mix of Irish ballads, homages to William Butler Yeats, and that cool New York jazz that underlines the mood. The mood is trance-like with talk of "my home on high" and "I'm nothing but a stranger in this world" and "I will never grow so old again." Nothing I've heard in my life has affected me to the extent that this album has. It's like a religion to me. I worship it.
It begins with the title song. This sets the stage for all the rest. It's a song of searching for the Muse. Like Yeats, Van lives in fear of the loss of this connection to creativity. This is why he's so pitiful when performing live; he never finds the Muse on stage. He only connects in little rooms by himself, and this is as it should be. You'd think that he was in constant communication with the musicians on this album. You'd think it had been planned down to the last detail. Nope. Van sat in a room and sang while they jammed in another room. They barely talked at all. Imagine the beauty of this. He's in there, eyes closed (probably) begging this fantasy to "find him," and "lay him down easy, to be born again." They have said in later interviews that they didn't even really listen to the lyrics. They didn't even really know who Van Morrison was. They were just session musicians having fun playing with each other.
It was recorded from 7 PM to 10 PM with the session guys playing songs they'd never heard before. It was finished in a couple of days working in this fashion. Some of the guys had been doing other session work during the day, and it was a time for them to relax, maybe after a couple of libations.
The second song is "Beside You." This one never fails to give me chillbumps. I don't know who Little Jimmy is, but I know he's gone. And I know that there is a force out there that Van believes will always "stand beside you, to never never wonder why at all."
The third song, Sweet Thing, is the most upbeat. This is where the crucial thought enters the mix: "I will never ever grow so old again." If you're not going to grow so old again, it implies a rebirth, doesn't it? This is the theme of the entire effort: It is possible to be Born Again. I think he means you can be born again through your art, but it might be even more mystical than this. There is little doubt that he would never have written Into the Mystic had it not been for this album. I think he's lived his whole life trying to get back to where he was when he did this. It's kind of sad when you think about it. This is now 33 years old. (Thirty Three is my lucky number.)
"Cyprus Avenue" is not one of my favorites. It's one of his homages to a geographic location in Belfast, I guess. I find the clavichord or harpsichord or whatever that thing is being used in this song to be quite annoying.
"The Way Young Lovers Do" is another upbeat number, even though it has a darker feel than does
"Sweet Thing." Listen to way the horns interact with the bass here. The bass lines are just phenomenal in this song.
Madame George is one of the songs which gets mentioned a lot. I think this is another song about Yeats and his young bride who practices automatic writing, but others think it's about an aging transvestite. I don't know, but I do know that this is one of the most trance-like songs on the album. It's truly a "childlike vision coming into view."
The last two songs, Ballerina and "Slim Slow Slider," are throwaways compared to what has come before. Heroin addicts might like the images in "Slim Slow Slider," a song about a friend who is either dying or dead from addiction.
The musicians here are Jay Berliner on guitar, John Payne on flute and saxophone, Connie Kay on drums (usually playing with brushes), Warren Smith on vibraphone and percussion, and the most important musician on the album is Richard Davis. He plays the upright bass with a texture which will rip your cold heart out and make it glow, just before you're born again.