Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums – Van Morrison, ‘Hard Nose The Highway’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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Van Morrison is both blessed and cursed by Astral Weeks, possibly the least disappointing record in history. There is no need to sing its praises here. It is as close to perfection as any LP could ever hope to come. How on earth does one follow up Astral Weeks? I remember finding Moondance vaguely disappointing after listening to its predecessor for months. Moondance! It’s a masterpiece. And so are the next few records. His Band and the Street Choir? Don’t get me started. I love that record! The point is that Van Morrison’s talent is so fine and so extraordinary that it is hard to accept anything that is less than life changing from him.

Except that we also want him to develop as an artist. Astral Weeks is nothing if not innovative. His ability to break new ground and give his imagination free reign are some of the keys to his genius. But we’re furious when it doesn’t work. Dylan has the same problem. He isn’t allowed to make mistakes without having them rubbed in his face. He was trying something on Self Portrait and it failed. But would you remove it from history and risk him never making Blood on the Tracks? Of course not.

The inexplicable cover of Kermit The Frog’s signature tune, Bein’ Green, doesn’t improve things.

Which brings us to Hard Nose The Highway (1973), the runt in the precocious early 1970s Van Morrison litter. The live album that followed is considered definitive and the next studio album was Veedon Fleece so, yeah, this is the one that got away from the Belfast Cowboy.

He recorded it at home in California. The tracks on the 1973 release are part of a much larger body of recordings, some of which appeared on The Philosopher’s Stone, a collection of outtakes that appeared in 1998. I want to deal with the album as it stood in 1973 but you don’t have to listen to many of the outtakes to identify the first problem with this album. He chose the wrong damn songs! It happens. He had some notion of releasing a double album but was talked out of it.

With that in mind, part of the problem with this album is that it is a good record but not a great record. Nothing here delivers the kind of gut punch listeners had come to expect from Van. The touch is lighter, the songs a little less jagged. Autumn Song is warm and funky but any song with a line about chestnuts roasting starts to lose me. Similarly, Snow in San Anselmo features his waitress in the pancake restaurant and her weather predictions. I know this is part of Van’s charm but sometimes it feels a little too improvised. Not so with The Great Deception, a bitter take-down of the sixties dream. It’s a great melody but the unrelenting Belfast bile starts to wear thin by the time he’s trashing hippies. Somewhere in the middle is Wild Children, a free flowing meditation on the baby boomers, Tennessee Williams, Brando, Dean, and Rod Steiger.

The title track suggests a certain weariness and a summing up of his career so far. It’s a promising song but it seems a bit unfinished, as though he couldn’t decide what it all meant so he just sang the title over and over.

Why is it disappointing?

Unlike its predecessor, the masterful St Dominic’s Preview, it lacks depth. Nothing here seems to stick. The inexplicable cover of Kermit The Frog’s signature tune, Bein’ Green, doesn’t improve things. His best records have a lift off point where you are taken away to Van’s Belfast/Madame Georgian world and treated to something special. That simply doesn’t happen on this record.

Why Should You Hear it?

Warm Love is a fan favourite and probably the best track on this album. With its flute, vibes, and well thought out arrangement, it has a finished atmosphere missing from too many other tracks on the record. Snow in Anselmo, weather forecast aside, is a close second and punchy opening to the record.

No Van Morrison record is ever entirely disappointing and if Van needed to release these songs so that he could continue on to make Veedon Fleece and Into The Music, I’m okay with it.

For the rest of this series, click here.

2 responses to “51 Disappointing Albums – Van Morrison, ‘Hard Nose The Highway’

  1. Hard work, beginning with perfection. I know taste is taste, and all that, but I often find myself listening to Van Morrison with the vague thought, “what am I missing here?” I’m probably too old to “get it” now

  2. I am a big fan though perhaps not as committed as I am to, say, Bob Dylan. I have fought my way through all of Dylan’s records at some point but I am aware that there are later Van albums I have yet to hear. That said, there are moments on his early 70s albums that still take my breath away. But it is, as you say, a matter of taste. I played Madame George for my partner recently, convinced that she would be instantly converted by this song. About half way through, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to happen! Have you heard his album with The Chieftains? I know one or two Van skeptics who adore it. Thanks for your comment, Shahida.

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