Album Review: Van Morrison ‘Veedon Fleece’
In the fall of 1973, Van Morrison returned to his native Ireland for the first time since his 1967 departure. The vacation arrived on the heels of a successful summer tour with his 11-piece band The Caledonia Soul Orchestra and the dissolution of his marriage to Janet Rigsbee. Accompanied by his new fiancée and the core of his orchestra, Morrison spent the bulk of the trip traveling southern Ireland and recording much of the material that would comprise his eighth studio album Veedon Fleece.
Released a year later, Veedon Fleece was dismissed by critics as a misguided attempt to recreate the magic of Astral Weeks. Rolling Stone’s Jim Miller went so far as to refer to the album’s score as “mood music for mature hippies” and argue that Morrison’s vocals suggested “a pinched vocal nerve drowning in porridge.” Needless to say, the reaction was less than a ringing endorsement of the songwriter’s return to his mellower roots.
In the decades since its release, Veedon Fleece has taken on a mythical quality amongst Morrison devotees, with many slapping the title of “forgotten masterpiece” on the release. One prominent reason for Veedon Fleece‘s forgotten status largely falls on the shoulders of Morrison, whom at least publicly, appears to have no affection for the LP. He has rarely, if ever, performed the material live and it is routinely ignored on Greatest Hits releases and retrospective compilations. The album is unavailable for digital download on iTunes and cannot be streamed by U.S. users on Spotify. However, CDs and vinyl surface routinely on Amazon and most decent record stores. Morrison appears content to leave the album as what it is: a stream-of-consciousness snapshot of an artist’s return home in the midst of an emotional transition.
Morrison spent the years between Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece churning out a string of R&B and soul classics. Moondance, Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic’s Preview and Hard Nose the Highway all found their way into the top 30 of the Billboard charts for their respective years. Those releases solidified Morrison’s position as a bona fide star, and largely found the artist working within the constraints of American pop music of the era. Though much of that material represented a sharp contrast to the free-flowing Astral Weeks, tracks like 1972’s “Listen to the Lion” should have indicated Morrison’s return to his earlier self.
Veedon Fleece opens with a pair of sprawling, piano-driven tracks accompanied by an upright bass, brush-stroked drums and acoustic guitar. Flourishes of flute and strings replace the big brass sound that had dominated Morrison’s preceding records. The additions provide depth without abandoning the album’s sparse, intimate feel. The music tends to swell and recede in intensity giving the collective tracks the feeling of a long conversation more than separate discussions. While Veedon Fleece may not reinvent the wheel from a musical standpoint, it is nevertheless a satisfying slow roll that coheres nicely.
Lyrically, Morrison appears inspired by his Irish landscape and the bards of previous generations. He references Oscar Wilde, William Blake and the Eternals and the “architecture of his mind.” Miller is reasonable in his assessment of these themes in his review, arguing that they are pretentious and self-aggrandizing. However, I would argue that it’s little more than Van being Van. To expect otherwise is a futile task.
There is little on Veedon Fleece that resembles a radio-ready track, with the notable exceptions of the album’s centerpieces “Cul de Sac” and “Bulbs.” Although, the same could be said about Astral Weeks, long thought of as an all-time-great pop record, but one that largely worked in contrast to the more traditional folk and rock of its peers. Love it or hate it, Veedon Fleece is the closest that Morrison ever came to offering up a sequel to Astral Weeks. For that reason alone, it deserves your consideration.