After his late 60s albums ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Moondance’ established Van Morrison as one of the greatest singer songwriters of the age, he entered the 1970s in very high regard and with great confidence. The rhythm and blues led ‘His Band and Street Choir’ kick started Morrison’s greatest decade, during which he released a string of superb albums – all strong in their own way and each one featuring a handful of genuinely classic tracks.
Like many of his peers, Morrison appeared to be out of step with the 1980s. He began the decade with the release of ‘Common One’, an understated collection of largely ambling and, at times, almost directionless songs. The largely forgettable ‘Beautiful Vision’ followed, although that’s very much worth checking out for the upbeat ‘Cleaning Windows’ featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar. In 1983, Van released the keyboard heavy ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’, an album considered by some to be the nadir of his career.
The main problem with ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is obvious right from the start, as ‘Higher Than The World’ begins with a wash of keyboards (somewhat akin to those that Simply Red would drench their albums in a few years later) leading to an easy-listening mulch, not far removed from Sade or something similar. Given an arrangement that would befit a restaurant, Morrison does his utmost to create interest, as his gruff voice moves from moody mumbling to lumbering loudness at the drop of a hat. By a couple of minutes in, there’s a feeling that he may be over compensating, as he warbles off key in his “enthusiasm”.
Initially, the synthetic eighties sound is quite suited to ‘Connswater’, the first of the album’s instrumental numbers, but soon it becomes obvious that the eighties production comes at the expense of one of the track’s key features. The tune has a distinctly Irish feel, with Davy Spillane making a guest appearance on Uileann pipes. The jig element of the number is very pleasing, but the bridge sections – featuring a pounding drum – are lacklustre, due to the drum being far too low in the mix. You guessed it – the dominant sound over that drum is a keyboard, not too dissimilar to the one featured during the previous track. The sax driven ‘Celtic Swing’ follows suit and, as you’d expect, has a jaunty quality. Production aside, there’s nothing overtly dislikeable about either of these instrumental numbers, but they feel rather like filler – and if you consider that amongst ‘Inarticulate Speech’s eleven tracks you’ll find four instrumentals, that’s a lot of padding. I can only assume with the inclusion of these instrumental numbers, Van was hoping somehow to create a successor to ‘Common One’.
‘Cry For Home’ is a mid-paced soul pop number which appears well written, but loses a lot in delivery. ‘River of Time’ – although far from essential Van – is much better, due to the drum kit having a little bit of oomph behind it and the bass work sounding more live. As you may expect, Van’s delivery on these songs lacks subtlety – drowning out most of the backing harmonies at various points – but quite often, it’s the force of nature that is his love-it-or-hate-it voice which carries this album’s songs, especially when the music is pedestrian. Considering the great session musos who stopped by to lend a hand on albums like ‘Tupelo Honey’, you have to wonder how Morrison got saddled with the bunch of people featured here who sound like they’d be better suited to performing library music for TV wildlife documentaries.
The album’s title track appears in two parts. The first part is an atmospheric instrumental with a piano at the fore. The piano work is simple and is counterbalanced by human voices used as instruments (a technique re-employed at the end of the album, but achieving a far weaker result). The end section of part one features a loud drum sound, which is very welcome, especially considering the subdued role the drums play on most of the songs. The second part brings in Morrison on vocals, but there’s not a great deal to get excited about as, over a gentle, waltzing arrangement he repeats the same three lines (“I’m a soul in wonder” and “I’m just wild about it, I can’t live without it”) between a repetitive refrain of “Inarticulate speech, inarticulate speech of the heart”. There’s a decent organ solo midway, but it’s so low in the mix, you’ll wonder why John Allair bothered playing it at all.
‘Rave On, John Donne’ begins with a spoken vocal, delivered by Van with a typical Belfast brusqueness. The music lulls as Mark Isham’s synth creates a blanket of sound and Chris Michie’s guitar overlays a simple chord structure with a ringing tone. Once again, the eighties production cannot be avoided, but here, it’s very well suited to the overall feel of the track. When Van’s lead vocal begins, it has all the effortless power of his mid-late seventies work. Similarly, the better known ‘Irish Heartbeat’ (covered by Billy Connolly as the theme to his ‘World Tour of Scotland’ travel programme) captures Van in a confident mood, his vocal steeped in a soulful power. His unmistakable tone gives the song an uneasy beauty, which loses none of its appeal despite a thin arrangement and even thinner sounding drum kit. ‘When The Street Only Knew Your Name’ is the album’s most upbeat moment. David Hayes lays down a fabulous funky bassline, although thanks to the eighties production techniques, it sounds unnaturally compressed and almost like a keyboard. Van’s delivery harks back to his early seventies work from ‘Band and Street Choir’ and as such, it’s one of the only times on this album where the band step outside of middling balladry and actually sound like they’re having fun. By the song’s end (as with ‘Rave On, John Donne’ and ‘Irish Heartbeat’), you’ll likely find yourself wondering how much better it certainly would have sounded had Morrison written and recorded it a decade earlier.
With a little more care, the instrumental ‘September Night’ should have been as good as ‘Connswater’. Its majestic keyboard chords could have provided the album with an atmospheric closing number, but that atmosphere is ruined by the use of a wordless vocal. I’m not against the idea of using the voice purely as an instrument – and the female vocals give the track an almost European cinematic quality – but once Morrison’s vocal begins, the atmosphere is quickly broken as he wanders into tuneless abandon.
While it’s easily understood why ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is so disliked, it’s more confusing as to why 1985’s ‘No Guru No Method No Teacher’ is so highly regarded. And what’s more, it’s absolutely bewildering as to why ‘Inarticulate Speech’ is so enjoyable despite it’s thousand faults. Maybe it’s because ‘Rave On, John Donne’, ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ could have been classic Van. Sadly though, those good songs have had the life sucked out of them by too many unnatural sounding keyboards and an over-production which makes everything sound way too clinical. In addition, four instrumental numbers is far too many, when you consider that Morrison is best known for his status as a singer-songwriter. Somehow though, especially considering it’s extremely flawed, ‘Inarticulate Speech’ manages to stay more memorable than most of Morrison’s other works throughout the 1980s.