Released in 1973 and reaching no.22 in the UK charts in August of the same year, Hard Nose The Highway is considered to be Van Morrison's best album of all-time by a handful of hardened Van fans, those people viewing it as something closed to hallowed. Even though I too am a hardened Van fan and although I like the album, it definitely for me isn't anywhere near his best.
The opening track, Snow In Anselmo, starts with choral voices and a gentle bass, guitar and drumming taking up the instrumentals. Van's voice, as he trills out the lead vocals, is on top form. There are some interesting guitar slides and harmonics throughout this song, but the tune is rather depressing. The lyrics are almost unfathomably deep, and I'm not too sure what they are supposed to be about. After a while, the song does an abrupt about-turn, where it suddenly goes fast, jazzy and driving, with the choral voices belting away and the drummer really coming into his own. This sudden energetic burst is a bit startling the first time you hear it. The song then returns to quiet mode, the words wandering off into describing various eating places and conversations with waitresses....then to close down, it goes back into fast mode again. I really wish I could make more of the words, because I strongly feel they are saying something very relevant, but this album comes from a time in Van's career when he was trying to steer away from his Moon Dance, easy-listening image, and return to something more complex. Sometimes I like this song more than at other times, and have concluded that my feelings about it depend on what my mood is whilst listening. It has a lovely closedown though, with those choral voices softly taking a final note, and fading it gently away.
Warm Love is a simple, easy to listen to love song which is full of lightness and gentle affection. There is a very prominent flute standing out in the instrumental accompaniment which gives the song a rather pretty, almost birdlike sound. Although the tune has an immediate impact, if you listen deeply enough it actually is quite complex with some unusual chord changes, and occasionally a guitar plays a sliding note which isn't quite, but almost C&W in flavour. The lyrics tell a little story of being caught in the rain and cold, then reaching home, snuggling up in front of the fire, but spreading the feeling further outwards in that I think Van is trying to say....when we're in love, we see love everywhere and are in love with everything. I do really like this song, but feel that in parts the instrumental arrangement is a little overdone and I'd prefer to hear it with just Van's voice and no more than a soft guitar/piano backing.
The title track of this album, Hard Nose The Highway, begins with a tuneful guitar and piano, with gentle percussion joining in. Van's voice is good, soulful and lilting, his lyrics being a statement about the busy lifestyle of somebody involved in the music world....describing his good times, his bad times, his trips between the USA and Ireland, expressing how stressful constantly being on the move is - hence the expression, Hard Nose The Highway. The best part about this song is the tune. Slightly amusing, yet simultaneously haunting, with just a very slight touch of Van's special brand of wistfulness. For me, this is one of the better tracks on the album, although perhaps the percussion is a little overdone. I absolutely love the way it ends.... "further on up the road, it may not be today, it may be tomorrow, so if you live for the day, gotta keep in mind it may be tomorrow, further on up the road..." taking the song to a close in borderline slow scat style....steeped in heartfelt passion and soul.
Wild Children begins slowly and dreamily, with soft percussion, sliding guitar and muted bass. The tune is wistful, nostalgic and quite sad...but it's a tune that I don't like too much. The lyrics concentrate on various aspects of having been born in the immediate post-WW2 period, as Van was, and where life took them, via their influences, during the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s. I can fully empathise with the words and the reason for writing a song of this nature, as I feel similarly regarding my own generation...me being from the next generation down the line to Van, but what lets this track down is the tune which although mellow, does depress me. There's nothing wrong with it...just too many minor chords for me, the feel of it reminding me of one of those dreary, rainy days in January when it seems as though the sun will never shine again.
The Great Deception launches straight into the song, with no introduction. Like other parts of this album, for me the instrumentation is too over-stated, and the pianist and guitarist seem to be almost playing from different songsheets, as they aren't (to my mind) cohering properly. I'm not wild about the tune of this song either, and lyrically I can't make head nor tail of what point Van is trying to make other than it quite likely being one of his gripes against the music business - there are scathing attacks on the hippie culture and a little dig at John Lennon in there, although his name isn't mentioned...it is obvious who the jibe is directed towards though. The attack on the hippies isn't of their root philosophy, but the farce that it later evolved into. As far as I'm concerned, this probably is the worst song on Hard Nose The Highway. It isn't often that Van can go beyond me as for the most part I'm with him all the way, but he leaves me dangling here.
Bein' Green (written by Jo Raposo) is a strange little song which I'm sure most people have heard, even if not by Van Morrison....for instance, it was first released as a single by Kermit The Frog, it being a regular feature on The Muppet Show! There is some quite nice twiddly guitar spicing up the instrumentals, and the tempo is laid-back, lazy and relaxing....but, Van's voice isn't at its best as he is straining to reach some of the higher notes. I really don't understand the point of this song, and I'm not sure if the term 'being green' refers to being Irish (in the sense of why Van chose to record it rather than being a frog!), or something else....maybe it's a nonsense statement? However, I do quite like the middle-eight which has a slight jazzy, albeit slow, element that is quite heavy on the brass. One problem with this song is that it is actually too long, even though it only lasts for 4:18 minutes, it not being strong enough to keep itself interesting for that duration.
Autumn Song is pleasant, easy-going, with a light, airy tune that has slight melancholic undertones. Van's voice is softer here, as he sings about an autumn day. The lyrics, although simple, are very poetic and truly reminiscent of that time of year when the leaves are falling from the trees, a chill is in the air and one wishes to snuggle up in front of a warm fire. The genre mood of this song is slightly jazzy, but I'm sure would appeal to those who aren't jazz fans, as it is so easy to listen to. It isn't Van's most penetrating, mind-blowing, complex or deep song, but it is a pleasant, easy-listening interlude with romantic overtones....it also has quite a nice middle-eight, with some expert guitar work. I am always pleasantly perplex by the ending to this song, as Van does some off the cuff improvised singing, and although I know he's definitely getting at something, I've never been able to work out what, but it gets a little what I'd call softly sexy.
Purple Heather (states that it was arranged by Van Morrison, but it is a traditional Celtic piece of music) closes the proceedings down, and is by far my favourite track on the album. It opens with soft guitar and drumming, then Van takes the vocals with his voice at its best. The lyrics begin with describing an autumn day, inviting somebody to join him on a trip through an autumn countryside scene. The mood of this song is utterly superb and totally moving...exciting in a gentle yet powerful way, soft yet penetrating, wistful yet happy, expectant, soulful, taking the listener to higher ground (if the listener opens up to the song and will allow him/herself to be moved). As the song progresses, the intensity of the mood accelerates along with the instrumental arrangement, joined by strings, rolling piano and a little xylophone. Listening to Purple Heather is like being taken on some sort of trip into what is both known and unknown, where you recognise the outer edge of something you've always been aware of, but have never been able to describe it, touch it or reach it....yet suddenly it is there, right in front of your eyes. It is so hard to find the right words here for this penetrating song that is both wistful and elating simultaneously....Van at his very best, and I just wish the rest of the album was of this monumentally spiritual high quality.
Aside from Van's arrangement and presentation of the final track, Purple Heather, for me Hard Nose The Highway as an album is largely lacking in that exquisite spirit of wistful emotion which he has injected into most of his other work over the passage of time. I am at a loss to understand why many dedicated Van Morrison fans feel this album to be his best work, because although none of it can be described as even remotely bad, 'The Man' is capable of so very much better.
Hard Nose The Highway was the first album where Van Morrison was in total control of its production, so perhaps he as a relative novice at that time, could be forgiven....he has certainly more than made up for any shortfalls here on most, if not all of his later work in the arena of production.
It isn't easy for me to assess whether Hard Nose The Highway would be a good introduction to Van Morrison's work, simply because I am so familiar with it, that it is difficult to view the album through the eyes (or should I say ears) of a newcomer, but I'd hazard a guess that it may not be the best place to start, as to people who aren't familiar with most of Van's work, it could come across as nothing out of the ordinary, the music and arrangement falling far short of what I know he is capable of....apart from Purple Heather at the end.
However, despite me finding Hard Nose The Highway a little dull compared to most other of Van's prolific output, it still is an album worth owning and listening to from time to time. It is only for me now to repeat my parrot-cry, that Van at his worst is better than most other singers/songwriters/performers are at their best...so not all is lost. I am hovering though as to how many stars I should award, due to the uneven quality of material on the album. If I were just to judge on the final track, Purple Heather, it would without question or hesitation receive a resounding full house, but due to a couple of what to me are very weak links and some less than brilliant production, I'm afraid it has to be a mere three.
At the time of writing, Hard Nose The Highway can be purchased on Amazon as follows:-
Original, un-remastered version on CD:-
New: only two copies currently available @ £19.99 and £59.95
Used: from £17.81 to £52.00
Collectible: only one copy currently available @ £35.99
Original tracks, remastered version on CD:-
New: only one copy currently available @ £59.27
Used: only two copies currently available @ £24.99 and £32.94
Vinyl LP record:-
New: no copies currently available
Used: from £11.00 to £15.00
Some items on Amazon are available for free delivery within the UK, but where this doesn't apply, a £1.26 charge should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Snow In San Anselmo
2 Warm Love
3 Hard Nose The Highway
4 Wild Children
5 Great Deception
6 Bein' Green
7 Autumn Song
8 Purple Heathe