Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Combining, Refining, Their Rock Soars

I feel like a fan again. All year, only two records have succeeded in plastering my brains to the ceiling more or less permanently--Paul Simon and Manfred Mann's Earth Band, both of which had me singing to strangers on the street until I could get home to my stereo again. Now, suddenly, I just have to play Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment and Van Morrison's Saint Dominic's Preview, all the time, and even though it's too soon to know, I won't be surprised if they both have me jumping up and down in front of the speakers for months and years to come.

Stewart and Morrison have been the most consistent rock artists of the decade, releasing three (and now four) consecutive albums that rank somewhere between standard and classic. In a way, this is a disadvantage--like Old Faithful, they're so miraculous they risk being boring. When Paul Simon and Manfred Mann came up with genius LPs, I got off partly on my own surprise, but from Rod and Van I demand the best so automatically that I don't always notice when I get it.

Their consistency is deliberate--both men make it their business to continually refine the English rock sensibility without processing the life out of it. Unlike so many singer-songwriters, they are deeply rooted in rock and roll. They derive their gritty vocal styles from rhythm-and-blues, and their instrumentation, while always imaginative--Stewart's mandolin and pedal steel, Morrison's horns--sticks close to the electric bone. They both have learned from the folkies. Not only are they far more literate than the average English flash weirdo, they know how to make their words flesh--that is, they can really sing.

Both integrate acoustic guitars to their ensemble. But most important, they can rarefy their music without vitiating it because they have learned how to perceive rock and roll and contemporary folk music and themselves as part of the folk. Relating consciously to its history and its present, they don't adulate or condescend--they think, they don't idealize.

The proof is their broad popularity. The Stewart success has been a little more spectacular. He also records with his group, The Faces and he plays Madison Square Garden while Morrison plays Carnegie Hall. It's partly because Stewart really wants to be a star. No one since the Beatles has reveled so gleefully into stellar pop-and-flash. Morrison's star pattern is more subdued, crossing two modern (but obsolescent) blues personae--the soul man (who boasts "Watch this" on "Jackie Wilson Said," which opens Saint Dominic's Preview, or kicks a phrase home on stage) and the jazz singer (who scats continually and affects shades and a cigarette at Carnegie Hall.)

I could even stretch it and say that Stewart and Morrison divide up the music the way they divide up the celebrity. Rod the Mod has moved from the half-broken blues feeling of his first solo album (recorded while he was still with Jeff Beck) into a world-view that (like The Faces) is humorous and pervaded by everyday objects and events. Morrison has always been more esoteric, and a little spaced out--even when he was leading Them seven years ago, he wrote a hit called "Mystic Eyes." But it's more complicated. Morrison's mysticism, like the black music he emulates, is worldbound--gets stoned to his soul on a drink of water or the thought of his wife in the kitchen. The hoarse strain of Stewart's delivery, on the other hand, almost instinctively transforms the jokes and the suffering into a kind of joyful fellowship. In other words both men combine the universal and the ridiculous, just the way well-behaved artists should.

Because he's in love with the run of life, it would be a kind of contradiction for Stewart to attempt any grand esthetic advances. His consistency reflects his homely side, and so it's irrelevant to wonder whether his work is getting better until it really does get boring. The new album doesn't peak as high as Every Picture Tells a Story--that is, it doesn't contain "Maggie May"--but it's anything but boring. "You Wear It Well" starts ringing in your head just like "Maggie May" after a couple of plays, and the three originals on the first side check in soon after. Several of the remakes are flat, but Stewart's anticipation of the incipient early '60's revival, "Twistin' the Night Away," is the perfect nostalgia combo--the unimaginable twist with the irreproachable Sam Cooke. Also, it makes you jump up and down in front of the speakers.

As a visionary, Morrison has the opposite obligation. Even though he opts for consistency, he must change to survive. The two LPs that followed the definitive Moondance showed off his hypnotic talents as a singer and melodist but they were changes for the worse. Tupelo Honey, so close to the domestic complacency of Woodstock pastorale that I was afraid Morrison had cooled out his crazy Irish soul for good, was especially inauspicious. But Saint Dominic's Preview is a major breakthrough.

The album that preceded Moondance was Astral Weeks, a collection of long, acoustic song-poems designed to lay a soul bare. Nobody bought it, a tribute to the general taste, but Morrison never abandoned the ambition, only the method. Saint Dominic's Preview crosses Astral Weeks with Moondance. At least temporarily, Morrison has put aside his words--after all, "I'm in heaven when you smile" said as much about the union of the temporal and the eternal as anything in Yeats--for purely vocal communication. The crucial cut, over 11 minutes long, is "Listen to the Lion." The lion is the mysterious lovely beast who hides in the jungle inside each of us, and midway through Van lets him out, moaning and stuttering and growling in an extension of scat singing which only one singer, jazz type Leon Thomas, has ever approached.

Morrison does bare his soul, on "Listen to the Lion" and throughout, yet this time the result is brilliant rhythm and blues rather than a self-indulgence.

"All my love came tumbling down," Van croons/moans/says in "Listen to the Lion" and that is exactly what is happening. His love comes down to each of us. But let us not forget Rod Stewart's parting words in "You Wear It Well." "Think of me and try not to laugh." That, too.

N'day, Aug. 13, 1972