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The Great Deception
on 5 January 2010
The 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide gave Hard Nose The Highway a one star rating, 'poor' just above 'worthless'. Dave Marsh, a critic whose opinion can usually be relied upon, criticised on the basis that Van Morrison was trying to reach a broader audience and that it was a failed compromise. The following edition also stuck with the rating and the two subsequent editions raised it to two stars, 'mediocre'.
The album was Van's sixth solo LP release (not counting the Bang stuff), all of which were worthy albums including the underrated His Band and Street Choir, three being essential (5 stars) to any collection in my estimation (Astral Weeks, Moondance, St Dominic's Preview). His musical aim was true, his voice spot on - check out the following live album Too Late to Stop Now, one of the best live albums anywhere - so what was different?
The first track Snow In San Anselmo starts with a classical choir, then mixes the choir with hot sax driven jazz. Both choir and the jazz sound initially incongruous. Then you think he's trying to give a sense of wonder or majesty perhaps, and it somehow works. The second track Warm Love is a Van classic, the warmth setting the stage for much of the album. Van's marriage was imploding at the time of recording and perhaps he was reminding himself of the way it was, or should be. The long Autumn Song is similarly warm and pastoral, hot chestnuts and fire, lovers in the evening, mellow jazz and intimate. Musically it is Van Lite, but atmospheric.
The album contains two covers, Kermit's Bein' Green which Van turns into a jazz blues metaphor for ''take me as I am'', and Purple Heather [aka Wild Mountain Thyme or Will Ye Go Lassie Go], a beautiful Scottish folk song which has Van reaching for his Caledonian roots. Van transforms it beautifully, makes it a Van song. Those interested in the folk song should check Dick Gaughan's great take with The McGarrigles and Emmylou Harris.
On the title track Van lets rip when the backing ladies and horn section come in at the end. The Great Deception has Van pointing out his awareness of those hypocrites, deceivers, thieves and opportunists who inhabit this 'world of lies'. The references to wealthy rock and roll singers who want you to pat them on the back seem to point to Lennon (Power to the People) and Sly Stone (Dance to the Music), although Van would no doubt say it's non specific. Nonetheless a good vitriolic Vanwhine, in the tradition as we now know it.
The standard of musicianship is as good as you might expect, as good as anywhere else in the vast Van vault. His vocals are tops as usual. The only detraction might be the emotional content of the lyrics which are surprisingly detached, however Van has been one of the great white expressionists for four decades now. When he sings ''I just wanna comfort you'' over and over as he does on Veedon Fleece he'd have the tears flowing from the head on a postage stamp. But alas no song on this album has such raw emotion despite what must have been an emotionally turbulent time for him. Maybe that's the way he copes, maybe Veedon Fleece was his release.
The 2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide states that Bein' Green is the only good song. The review was sadly lacking, in fact the total Morrison review appeared askew. In the end, Hard Nose The Highway is one part of the great quilt of Vanness which has kept us warm for four decades, some parts more brightly hued than others, some parts stitched in a moment, but all imbued with the unmistakable artistry of Van.