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Released in 1971, Tupelo Honey was Van Morrison's fifth solo studio album. It reached no.21 in the US album charts, but didn't get anywhere in the UK. However, it remains an important piece of Van The Man's work, despite comprising much lighter content than some previous offerings, such as the deep and mystifying Astral Weeks four years earlier.
Tupelo Honey is a relatively short album with all of the tracks written by Van Morrison, and although he was living in New York at the time, it was recorded in San Francisco.
The opening track, Wild Night, begins with a little guitar piece and some very rhythmic drumming. Van then takes the vocals on this very percussive song, his voice good, although a little too high than I suspect he may have been comfortable with. The tempo is quite fast, and there is a slight C&W feel with slide guitar in the background. This is a fairly noisy track, although very tuneful, and has a pronounced brass section which I feel it could almost do without. The lyrics are as the title suggests, about a wild night, with the mood being evocative of one of those nights where everything seems alive, buzzing and loudly inviting. The tune and lyrics are probably the best part of this track, because I personally feel it is somewhat over-arranged and I'd prefer to hear it softened down considerably....however, that was very much in vogue during the late 1960s/early 1970s for artists other than those producing hard blues/rock to go heavy on the brass. Each time I listen to this track, I can hear it being played in my head very differently - simply Van's voice, and softer, with just a little piano and acoustic guitar backing....that's how I'd prefer it. It is an extremely good song though, which perfectly captures the essence of a 'wild night'.
(Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball has a pronounced acoustic guitar opening, delivering a steady, firm tune which is medium/fast in tempo. Van then takes the vocals with his voice at its best. The tune of this is very, very catchy and the lyrics describe those days we have when the world seems against us, although the song's mood isn't draggy or depressing. It is simple, easy to listen to - maybe even a bit sugary - but nonetheless skilfully written and performed. This is one of those songs which most people will catch onto straight away, due to its borderline pretty tune that has a strong pop element rather than the more complex offerings which Van is more typically famous for. This is something which I, and many other people no doubt, just can't help liking, perhaps due to its almost 'singalong' quality.
The mood changes with the next track, Old Old Woodstock, which opens with a quiet but firm few chords on a piano. Straight away, there is a sense of expectation as Van delivers the vocals. The atmosphere of this song is powerful, although the tune, tempo and instrumentals are very gentle. Slow in pace, Old Old Woodstock lyrically describes the peace and beauty of nature of where Van was then living (Woodstock in New York)....travelling home from a journey somewhere to his waiting wife (who at the time was Janet 'Planet'). The arrangement on this song is very tasteful, containing a little hint of that 'pretty wistfulness' which as the years progressed, has become Van's special musical trademark. As the song gets closer to the end, the instrumentals become significantly heavier, although the tune remains slow. This is one of my favourite tracks on the album, as it is more typical of what Van for me is all about.
Starting A New Life begins with a jaunty little guitar, with drums and bass joining in. Van takes the vocals with his voice softer than on the previous tracks above. The tune is easy, of fairly fast tempo and has a very slight country-ish touch to it. There is a harmonica solo during the middle-eight which is quite high pitched in tone, but it suits the overall easy-going mood of the song. The lyrics are positive, speaking of the excitement of moving on and, as the title suggests, starting a new life. This is a very short song, easy to listen to with a catchy tune, but for me lacks a certain depth which I know Van is more than capable of. However, all singer/songwriters are entitled to their lighter moments, and this is one of his.....plus, he does it well, as the infamously morose Van Morrison isn't all doom and gloom.
The next track, You're My Woman, begins very slow with Van in gentle, soft voice, with tasteful piano, quiet percussion and bass backing. The lyrics don't quite hit my spot as they describe a state of being that I'm not familiar with...such as expressing one's devotion to one's partner, and thanking them for bearing your child. Here and there the instrumentals, including some rather dirty-sounding sax, crash in heavily, then return to quiet mode again...alternating between those two extremes throughout the song. This isn't my favourite track on the album as although it's very good, I feel that Van has penned far better love songs....but, this is typically early 1970s in feel so it no doubt was in keeping with the mood of the times. On the positive side though, there are some nice little bluesy 'bends' to the guitar and Van's voice here and there, and the song is sung with a gentle passion that evolves into rip-roaring soulfulness towards the end.
Next is the title track, Tupelo Honey. The song begins quietly with that hallmark twiddly, heart-tugging guitar sound seeping through which Van is so famous for, gentle percussion and piano. Van's voice as he takes the vocals is soft, almost velvet-like at times, as he sings this tasteful love song. The lyrics are poetic, with the meaning of the verse part not being immediately obvious....taking a few hearings to fully appreciate. There is a deliciously spine-chilling, slightly muted sax solo in the middle of the song which has a touch of a jazzy feel to it, although the rest of the song is done in ballad style. On first hearing, this sounds quite a simple song, but to tune in to what's going on instrumentally, it actually is a complex arrangement. Overall though, it is a melodic, pretty, easy to listen to song which is thoughtful in mood/atmosphere....although it does get a bit loud during the second half and towards the end.
I'm not sure if the next track, I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative) is an adaptation of, as the title suggests, an old Scots song, but on the CD sleeve, the writing is credited to Van Morrison. The tune is what I can only describe as countrified Celtic music - when I say countrified, I mean it in the C&W sense. There is a definite slide guitar present, with the rest of the instruments being acoustic. The drumming is fairly heavy and the tune very catchy. The lyrics are pleasantly, yet intelligently frivolous, describing a night by a campfire with a member of the opposite sex, the male quite obviously having amour on his mind! This is another catchy song, which although it is pleasant to listen to and fits very snugly into the album, could get on some people's nerves due to its repetitiveness. For me, the poetry in the lyrics is its high spot.
The penultimate track, When That Evening Sun Goes Down, begins with jaunty piano, guitar and quite prominent percussion. Van takes the vocals with his voice in fine fettle as he sings the lyrics which aren't dissimilar to the last track, a lightly romantic overture from man to woman as he has something more intimate than a moonlight walk on his mind. Like the other tracks on this album, the tune is very simple and catchy, being extremely easy to listen to. There is a slight country element present, mingled with something that could almost be described as honky-tonk pub music! Overall, this is a simple, almost amusing little ditty ...when listening, clock who is probably one of the production crew members or one of the musicians collapsing into laughter at something at the end!
Moonshine Whiskey, the final track, has a very pronounced country flavour with lots slide guitar. The tune is jerky, catchy and easy to listen to with quite a few very well-defined chords. Van sings the song well, and the lyrics are simple, speaking of travelling to see his "Texas sweetheart, part from Arkansas" and imagining what it will feel like when he's with her again and they dance together. There are slow stretches in the song, which have an expectant, soulful flavour (although these parts are accompanied by some slightly out of tune female backing vocalists), and during these stretches, the lyrics are quite interesting, more from the way Van delivers them rather than the words themselves. The alternation between the slow stretches and the jerky, very C&W flavoured main tune is interesting in that to hear them separately one would think they'd not lie comfortably together, but they actually do in this song, and I put that down to skilful arrangement. Outside of the C&W parts, there is a lot of Van's special style of what I call 'cheeky soul' present, of the type that he most usually saves for his live performances...helped along by some deliciously bluesy, breathy sax. In some ways, although I certainly am no fan of C&W music, this is my favourite track on the album as the arrangement is fascinating....it also winds down this collection of songs extremely well.
For me, Tupelo Honey as an album is an interesting step along the path of Van Morrison's development as a highly respected singer/songwriter whose output over the past almost fifty years has been varied, prolific and sometimes hallowed. After his virgin album Astral Weeks, which at the time of its release was (and still is) enshrined by some, yet rejected by others due to its utter complexity and depth, Van seemed to veer away from recording his soul onto vinyl, moving towards a more mainstream style. I personally see Tupelo Honey as one of those albums along Van's early road where he perhaps was still finding his feet, looking for a niche which did eventually come, albeit mutable in content.
This is an album which is short in length, containing just a handful of largely lighthearted, quite snappy little songs that are easy on the ear...with a sometimes subtle and sometimes more marked, yet always definite C&W flavour. However, such is still appealing to people like myself who generally have an aversion to songs which teem with slide guitars, trucks, mothers and orphaned children. Lyrically, Van is very much himself on this album, with the evidence of C&W being solely from the instrumental side.
The front picture on the CD sleeve is of two girls riding a horse along a forest bridle bath, and inside, there is an image of Van Morrison (smiling!) with his then wife, Janet 'Planet'. Sadly the lyrics aren't printed on the inner part of the sleeve, but information about the musicians and who played what is quite clear.
As well as writing all the material for Tupelo Honey, Van Morrison also was co-producer, and I must say that the quality of production on this album is superb. However, hardened Van fans or those who aren't overly familiar with his work yet want to hear him from his deepest core, won't find this to be an album which contains those spine-tingling, wistful, biting offerings which gently but powerfully tear away at your soul...for that side of Van, either Astral Weeks or his later works would more closely fit the bill.
Tupelo Honey as an album takes me right back to my youth, although I didn't buy it until later on. It strongly reminds me of the folksier side of the hippie era, when sandal-wearing long-hairs would gather in one of our local sea-front pubs, where the entertainment consisted mostly of live folk singers/performers. This isn't a folk album, but it is reminiscent of espadrilles, Laura Ashley print smock dresses, camisoles, espadrilles, Aqua Manda, Kensington Market and patchouli.
In summary, Tupelo Honey is a small collection of feel-good songs that are tuneful, well-arranged, lyrically light but intelligent and musically easy on the ear, which I'm sure would appeal pretty much across the board to both Van fans and non-Van fans alike.
At the time of writing, Tupelo Honey can be purchased from Amazon as follows:-
New: only two copies currently available @ £24.49 and £26.95
Used: from £8.00 to £27.22
Collectible: only one copy currently available @ £14.99 (appears to be used)
New: from £16.17 to £25.31
Used: only one copy currently available @ £7.99
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 ~~
1971 finds Van Morrison reporting back from his idyllic rural idyll in Woodstock, upstate New York. His wife at the time (the excellently named and dressed Janet Planet) is on horseback on the sleeve and the bearded Morrison certainly appears relaxed and happy. This image belies the experimental nature of some of this record. Country soul is evident on the Stax meets pedal steel of the rousing opener and radio hit Wild Night. The great title track is soul mixed with dappled rural sunshine as befits the album cover and the quietly moving You're My Woman is good old fashioned love struck balladry.
Old Old Woodstock and Starting a New Life reflect Van's bucolic bliss but the whole thing is anchored by the same super session players such as jazz drummer Connie Kay and bassist Bill church that helped Astral Weeks achieve its promise. Their unforced but punchy fills and solid time keeping stops the whole affair from drifting off into a country jamming session.
The 2008 reissue features an alternate cut of wild night and the addition of Down by the Riverside, a traditional song arranged by Van. Whilst these aren't essential extras they help fill out this delightful mid-price package. Though Tupelo Honey does not quite hits the Astral Weeks or Moondance highs it provides a nice bridge into the Caledonian soul orchestra phase of 1972's St Dominic's Preview as well as showing the happier side of a performer known for his curmudgeonly stance.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Wild Night
2 (Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball
3 Old Old Woodstock
4 Starting A New Life
5 You're My Woman
6 Tupelo Honey
7 I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)
8 When That Evening Sun Goes Down
9 Moonshine Whiskey
10 Wild Night
11 Down By The Riverside