Van Morrison: The Essential Van Morrison

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Van Morrison
Essential Van Morrison
(Sony/Legacy)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Leave it to the notoriously prickly, unpredictable and inconsistent Van Morrison to keep fans waiting until 2007-’08 to re-issue and expand the bulk of his catalog, only to mysteriously and frustratingly take most of it out of print a few years later. Then, he returns it all back in circulation, but only digitally (steaming and download, at least for now), with less than a week’s notice. This 37 track, two disc, cross-label collection (in physical and digital configurations) is also announced at that time.

It’s just another strange turn in a 50 year and counting career that longtime fans of the Irish singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist have come to expect. Among his peers, only Neil Young comes close to Morrison’s historically impulsive behavior. Add to the mix Van’s musically eclectic nature that is as likely to find him singing country with Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister, jazz with Georgie Fame, skiffle with Lonnie Donegan, blues with John Lee Hooker, Celtic fronting the Chieftains or his own mystically moody pop and you have an artist who is arguably the most diverse and artistically all-encompassing of any of his peers, of which there aren’t many.

Which is to say, the difficulty of sifting this mammoth catalog containing dozens of albums down to less than 40 tracks is a formidable task indeed. The folks responsible though have done an excellent job by choosing obvious hits like “Gloria,” “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Domino” to snuggle up to such under-the-radar gems such as “Tore Down a la Rimbaud,” the mambo beat of “Once in a Blue Moon” and the Sinatra-crooning nostalgia of “Magic Time.” It’s a wonderfully listenable set, which is all the more unusual because it’s also chronologically programmed.

Both platters are packed to their time limits. The addition of two tunes from 1968’s classic Astral Weeks, an album that hasn’t gotten much recognition in previous Morrison compilations but is considered one of his finest and most idiosyncratic works, is an extra bonus and helps make this the most comprehensive, label-spanning double disc Morrison compilation around.

Now that this music is widely available again, perhaps we’ll get that long awaited box set that someone of Morrison’s stature deserves. Until then, this will do just fine especially for those new to Morrison’s talents looking for a taste of what makes him such a legendary figure.