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VOCALS, ACOUSTIC GUITAR & HARMONICA: Van Morrison
BACKING VOCALS: Brian Kennedy, Liam Bradley & Pee Wee Ellis
Piano: Geraint Watkins, Fiachra Trench
Electric & acoustic guitar: Mick Green
Double bass: Ian Jennings
Drums & other percussion: Bobby Irwin, Liam Bradley
Hammond organ: Geraint Watkins
Tenor, baritone & soprano sax: Pee Wee Ellis
Trumpet: Matt Holland
String arrangements: Fiachra Trench
All songs written by Van Morrison
Van Morrison's album "Back On Top" was released in March 1999 and reached no.11 in the UK album charts almost immediately. The single "Precious Time" taken from the album reached no.36, also in March of 1999.
After quite a long period of intense spirituality, Van appeared to not go downhill quality-wise in the early to mid-1990s...it was more that his music changed away from mysticism and soul-blowing arrangements into something more basic (yet of course still first class), and overall, his work from that period seemed to be tinged with a mood of depression.
When "Back On Top" was released, the first I heard of it was on Terry Wogan's morning show on Radio 2 (Terry always plugs Van lol). He was playing the single "Precious Time" a lot, and I thought OMG I'm slipping here - I've missed a Van Morrison album release....so of course I immediately dashed out and bought it.
Despite being one of Van's hardened, long-term fans who considers him to be the guru at the top of the musical tree, I always have had to listen to most of his albums at least two or three times before I could accustom myself to them, and this one was no exception. As far as grading "Back On Top" while holding it up against all his other work, I'd rate it at around middling....perhaps a little higher, and I got the impression from this album that whatever low he had been on while churning out his mid-1990s somewhat depressive material, was beginning to dissolve.
Here's my run-down on each track....hope it's not too boring to read!
1) GOIN' DOWN GENEVA
This track starts with a small drum roll, which is joined by bluesy, almost boogie-style piano, and bass. Van's voice joins in, and we launch into a gently rocking, mid-tempo R&B-flavoured song. Van appears to be taking us through a little description of a tour he did of Europe, and what his thoughts were whilst both working and relaxing. Weather features prominently in a lot of Van's songs, and this one speaks of playing in Salsburg outside in the pouring rain....and his heart was filled with pain. It appears to be a song that reflects upon his whole career, wondering how on earth he got to be in the place in life that he finds himself. A name is mentioned in the song of someone who Van says used to live in Geneva....Vince Taylor....and I believe Van is referring to Vince Taylor, the astrologer. Van adds in the song that "nobody's ever head of him" and asks where he (Vince) fits in. There is a lovely borderline boogie piano solo in the middle of this song, and later there's a nice slightly fuzzed up, heavy-ish guitar break....which is repeated yet again, towards the end of the song. The whole thing just rocks and rolls along at a nice steady pace. Speed it up very very slightly, and you have rock'n'roll. I find this sort of music whether it's done by Van or not (style I mean) very reassuring for some reason - maybe it's linked in to times of my life, atmosphere-wise, when I felt very secure. The song comes to a close with Van's voice sounding very definite on the last vocal note, then all the instruments come together for a crashing chord....followed by a little tinkle on the piano and a finger-roll up the scale, which ends the song altogether.
2) PHILOSOPHER'S STONE
The intro to this song is a very softly played, gentle piano tune backed by quiet Hammond organ. Van's voice slides in, singing about being on the highways and byways, all alone, searching for his home. The song speaks of the down side life on the road as a performer....his head is aching and his hands are cold....looking for the silver lining in the cloud, searching for the philosopher's stone. Brian Kennedy's voice quietly joins in on the second verse. Both their voices combine as Van speaks of being born in the back streets, something which spread over his whole wealth of music, is often mentioned....his life roots. The middle-eight of the song is Van playing harmonica, before returning to singing the verse.....again with Brian Kennedy, this time, backed by violins. This song has a marked tinge of depressiveness about it, but is not difficult to listen to. The tune is slow-ish, pleasant and a little soulful. Towards the end, there is a second harmonica break, this time the tone of it is a little harsher - and the violin backing sounds slightly more frantic. The song ends on a little piano roll, with a final chord on soft violins.
3) IN THE MIDNIGHT
Wow - this song begins with a very sad, sliding guitar piece backed by gentle Hammond organ and extremely soft drumming - a gentle beat - then Van's voice, very softly begins to sing. The tune and words of this song are tinged with gentle despair, and the whole thing is incredibly sad. I really want to type all the words of this song out, but I think the copyright issue could come into play. The middle of the song has an almost gut-wrenching, but extremely quiet, softly played guitar solo. Throughout the song, Van's voice is very gently backed by Hammond organ, piano and Brian Kennedy. It's a kind of a fusion song....combining a sense of depressive frustration and loneliness about life on the road, simultaneously with thinking about a lost love and wishing she were with him or that he could be going back to her. This song is so very, very sad - no matter how much he tries to get her out of his mind, she creeps back into it. The whole thing ends on a combination of voices (Van's and Brian's) with all the instruments, on a soft closing chord. The depressive, sad wistfulness of this track bites gently, but very very deeply.
4) BACK ON TOP
This song begins with brass, drums, harmonica and guitar, and is of moderate tempo. Van's voice comes in, joined by brass and Hammond organ, and gives us a song which on the surface seems as if it's to an ex-lover/partner, but I personally think it's a message to the music business and possibly his fans. He's saying that we've all seen him travel through his career, working his way from the bottom to the top, and he describes what an inner struggle the whole thing has been. It goes on to say (and I think this bit is more directed at the music industry) how they saw him rise to the top, then fall, and rise back to the top again - he's back on top, as the song title suggests. During the song Van speaks of those at the top of the hill being deadbeats, and that he's happy to be down on the streets again - presumably with the real people. This song rocks quite gently, and has a good, fairly up-tempo sax solo in the middle. Brian Kennedy's voice gently backs Van's, and though most of the time they blend very well with one another, I don't feel this song is really suited to Brian's voice. The whole thing ends with all the instruments and voices on one single chord.
5) WHEN THE LEAVES COME FALLING DOWN
We begin this song with gentle Hammond organ and piano, with a very slightly jazz feel, then Van's voice - gentle - joins in. This is a very slow, mellow song. It's a very tender love song, speaking of seeing his love in autumn, in September when the leaves come falling down....he beckons the object of his love to follow him to a place beside the garden and the wall. Though a love song, the tune has a very sad feel to it - I'm not sure if Van intended that though. It has a gentle piano, organ and strings backing, plus Brian Kennedy's voice can be heard harmonising with Van's on approximately every 4th line. In the middle of the song, the piano takes forefront, backed by gentle organ, and it's a soft sound, almost like not running water, but slowly flowing water. Van mentions Chet Baker in the song...creating an image of listening to Chet on the beach, in the sand. The leaves on the trees and in the woman's hand change colour gradually through the song. I personally feel this song would sound better without the strings in the background, but that's just my preference. The song ends on a little flurry of slow notes by the brass section.
6) HIGH SUMMER
This song begins with Van on harmonica, backed by soft drumming, laid-back piano, twiddly guitar and Hammond organ. He then begins to sing....this is a fairly slow song, full of strange images and analogies, of he and a woman observing the coming of autumn. It is mentioned that "he" was shut out of paradise, they called him Lucifer and frowned, then she took pride in what God had made him before the angels shot him down. I'm not sure if Van is referring to himself there, or someone else, or if it's just imagery with words. There is a brass section middle-eight, then Van's voice returns, backed by Brian Kennedy's. He speaks of "him" going to a tiny village by the lakeside to start anew, then describes being a light out of the darkness, wearing a starry crown - again, I'm not sure if Van is describing himself or someone else. There is then another short brass interval, with Van and Brian returning to harmonise and close down the song with a single note.
7) REMINDS ME OF YOU
Ouch ouch ouch! This song opens with a little gentle guitar riff, backed by soft Hammond organ and laid-back quiet drumming....with an almost hymn-like quality. Van's voice then joins in, more poignant than I've ever heard it...launching into one of the most agonisingly desolate lost-love songs I've ever heard, with Brian Kennedy joining in subtely in the background. The words of the song are no less than masterful, cutting deep daggers into a place of dark loss.....and, if any of you out there who are currently in the throes of a bereavement or relationship loss of any kind, I wouldn't recommend you listen to this for some while. There is a short middle-eight, mostly played on Hammond organ, then Van and Brian continue with the singing, the words and images/subjective impressions getting darker and more despairing - in a gentle way - as the song goes on. In the whole collection of Van's work across the board, he has only done a small handful of lost-love songs....and this one cuts to the core, ending on a single soft piano and brass note.
8) NEW BIOGRAPHY
This opens with quiet, but slightly funky guitar and Hammond organ backing, then in comes Van's voice. This is one of Van's anti the music business songs....particularly directed at biographies which have been written about him, that he is claiming are false. Brian Kennedy's voice backs gently, and the song continues down the same route. It's an odd genre combination this song....slightly funky, slightly reggae-ish, yet with quite a strong early 60s high school mush-pop feel to it. There is a rhythmically jerky, yet smooth-toned sax break in the middle, and every so often the brass will belt forth with a little twiddle.
Not my favourite track on the album....the song just fades away, with all the instrumentals in harmony.
9) PRECIOUS TIME
This song was played a lot on Radio 2 at the time the album was released, and I'm sure most people are familiar with it. It opens with guitar, brass and drums playing a happy-sounding tune, then in comes Van's voice telling us how precious our time is and that it's slipping away all the time. Then Brian's voice joins in, and the two of them trill out this very pop-ish sounding tune with a good, uptempo melody. In the middle of the song there is a deliciously almost rock'n'roll-ish sax break. All sounds very happy and I'm sure lots of people loved this song because it's catchy and the tune is very up-beat, but listen to the words and it can bring about quite a doom-laden feeling. I first listened to the words properly at a time when it had cruelly dawned on me that I wasn't young any more, and I found the whole concept quite depressing. All the same though, the words are very cleverly written, and I feel designed to make us think about our mortality and the constant process of ageing...Van conveys that reality of life with some incredibly poetic and well-put-together words/statements. It is the sax which takes us out of the song, with quite a long rock'n'roll-ish sounding passage, winding down to a final note for the end. Precious Time is by far the most commercial-sounding track on the album.
10) GOLDEN AUTUMN DAY
We begin here with quiet Hammond organ, backed by gentle drumming and soft guitar. Van then comes in, singing of "coming back" after some kind of downfall....on a golden autumn day, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds of an Indian summer. As the song moves on, Brian Kennedy joins in with the vocals, and we get a little rather drastic-sounding occasional flurry of violins. The words seem as if Van is singing about someone or himself having been attacked in the street by armed thugs, while parking his car....not on the streets of New York, but on the streets at home....... "Who would think this could happen in a city like this, among Blake's green and pleasant hills". There is a nice sax break in the middle of the song, then it goes back to the main tune with Van still singing about the attack, and taking solace in the sunshine of September, pretending it's paradise, on a Golden Autumn Day. This is the only track on the whole album which, as it draws to a close, holds a definite and delicious dose of that special, unique Van wistfulness. Gentle chords played on violins gradually fade away, and take the song to its closedown, on rather a minor and somewhat sad note.
Just after this album was released, I remember talking to a workmate whose love of Van Morrison equals mine, and he felt that this particular album was part of a line, increasing in length, of work from Van which was depreciating in quality. I wasn't, and still am not sure I agree with my ex-colleague - it is true that Van doesn't blow the mind in the same direction as he used to, but I feel he still manages to just as well....merely down a different path.
For me, "Back On Top" is a few steps down that different path which is perhaps an avenue back to simplicity, back to Van's roots, and maybe having a mental clearout via song...... offloading accumulated baggage before wholly moving back into the world of basics.
It doesn't seem nearly ten years since the release of "Back On Top", and for me, like with everything else Van has done, this album takes its rightful place, up another rung of the ladder on the journey of his rather stunning career as one of the most successful and prolific singer/songwriters in the world.....where he to my mind belongs, back on top!
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Goin' Down Geneva
2 Philosopher's Stone
3 In the Midnight
4 Back on Top
5 When the Leaves Come Falling Down
6 High Summer
7 Reminds Me of You
8 New Biography
9 Precious Time
10 Golden Autumn Day
11 Philosopher's Stone [Alternate Version][*]
12 Valley of Tears [*]