College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 2

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2. Van Morrison, Wavelength

I saw Van Morrison play live once, as the capper to a day-long festival of mostly Irish artists sponsored, of course, by Guinness. This was towards the end of the nineties, so Morrison was well past the point that he new music was garnering anything but the most meager attention, critically and especially commercially. It also meant he was safely an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll, someone who could justifiably be called a legend. He was strikingly disengaged in some respects, coming to the microphone in between extended smoke breaks backstage and belting out his songs as a tight band wailed behind him. And yet he was fantastic, gifted with the kind of presence, certainty, and soulful singing voice that made every song into a powerhouse, even as he seemed almost perturbed by the need to do his job.

The version of Morrison on saw on that stage matches up nicely with the version I hear on his 1978 album, Wavelength. There’s a drabness to it, but also an undeniable authority. He performs like a guy who knows he doesn’t have to try all that hard to still be distinctive, arguably even better than just about everyone else plying the musical trade at the time. Hell, he’s even taking a smoke break on the album cover.

While not one of the albums from his vast career that’s still widely celebrated today, Wavelength was a significant hit for Morrison. Indeed, it was his biggest hit to that point, selling its way to a gold record certification with weeks, far faster than any of his other efforts. And the title cut brought him within a hair’s breadth (okay, two spots) of his first Billboard Top 40 hit since 1971’s “Wild Night.” In some respects, it’s not all that surprising. The record seems targeted at a broader audience with slick production, more direct songwriting, and little acquiescences to the popular music of the time, such as the disco-lite back-up singers who pop up across the two sides. This might stem in part from Morrison trying to make up for lost time. After his 1974 album Veedon Fleece, he’d taken a three year break from recording, an absolutely lifetime in the nineteen-seventies, when artists were expected to churn out a new album roughly every year. When his comeback record, A Period of Transition, was tepidly received, there may have been some added pressure to reassert himself as a viable commercial artist.

It’s a hit or miss affair, with a few more songs that can be slotted into the latter category. “Natalia” is a prime example of Morrison seeming to reach out to radio, while album closer “Take It Where You Find It” is clearly intended to play as one of Morrison’s long, beautiful soul workouts, only to wind up as a dull slog as it stretches on for nearly nine minutes. It’s still Morrison, though, which means there are pleasures to be had, embedded in each and every song. It surely helps that Morrison is unique in all of rock ‘n’ roll history for his ability to spin lyrics like “Listen to the music to music inside/ Can’t you hear what it says to you” (in the song “Lifetimes”) away from their inherent triteness towards something approaching profundity. The album’s peak is probably “Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession,” which marks the first time Morrison shared a songwriting credit on an an album, as the first song on the melded track was penned with Jackie De Shannon. Perhaps tellingly, both “Santa Fe” and “Beautiful Obsession” were originally written in the early seventies, well before the other material on the record.

His status as a significant performer solidly reestablished, Morrison started to test those boundaries, first by crafting songs with more over religious themes on follow-up album Into the Music and then the free jazz meanderings of his first album of the nineteen-eighties, the now largely forgotten Common One. Then it was time for the MTV era to push through the soil. An artist as churlish as Morrison had no chance in that environment. It was time to start the long process of easing into venerable music biz survivor status.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA
–3: Tormato

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