Culture > Music

Music: Keeping the faith?

Music | Van Morrison's contradictions and Maria Muldaur's paradoxes

Issue: "Is there no tomorrow?," Aug. 7, 1999

With 1979's Into the Music, Van Morrison made a musical profession of faith so eloquent that echoes of it still resound in his music. Hearing them can sometimes be difficult, mainly because Mr. Morrison himself is difficult. He is something like Walt Whitman, who answered the question "Do I contradict myself?" with "Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes." Mr. Morrison's work is both large (Back on Top is his 31st album) and self-contradictory: He is by turns a joyful Christian, a superstitious pagan, and a bitter misanthrope. And just as Whitman's poetry unites multitudes by speaking for them with one mouth, Mr. Morrison's singing, instrumentation, and lyrics unite jazz and blues, gospel and soul, wise man and fool. Back on Top is a typical, and typically enjoyable, Van Morrison album, the latest version of the one he's been making obsessively for years now. His ability to celebrate William Blake, silence, falling leaves, and gardens wet with rain seems endless, as does his zeal for medieval archetypes (Holy Grail, Philosopher's Stone, Ideal Lady) that symbolize the otherworldly source of man's deepest desires. Ironically, what saves him from predictability is also what makes him an enigma for Christians-namely, that he settles for width when depth eludes him. The problem on Back on Top isn't "Precious Time," with its casual, Ecclesiastes-lite pessimism, but "High Summer," which says something about Lucifer, but exactly what remains unclear. Perhaps the most one can conclude about Back on Top is that it presents a figure in transition, a reckless romantic for whom the most perplexing questions and serpentine paths pose irresistible challenges. That Mr. Morrison has long cut such a figure doesn't present his audience with a problem of esthetics or theology so much as with a problem of patience, as he's obviously in no hurry to draw a more definite conclusion himself. Like Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur also marked a turning point in her career with a gospel album (1980's excellent Gospel Nights). Unlike Mr. Morrison, Miss Muldaur has since proceeded with a most definite if two-fold purpose: first, to rescue love's legitimately sensual elements from abuse at the hands of perpetually adolescent rock 'n' rollers; second, to restore those elements to their rightfully dignified place in the mature timbres of late-night jazz and blues. Meet Me Where They Play the Blues demonstrates her voice to be the perfect instrument for this delicate operation. By singing sublimely about the earthy ("Soothe Me") and earthily about the sublime ("The Promised Land"), she creates a metaphor for the union of body and soul that makes close listening a pleasure.

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