By 1972, Van Morrison had already asserted himself as a prominent figure in the world of music, with a couple of Billboard Top 10 hits under his belt and the admiration of critics for his unique orchestration and outsider approach to soul music. With his marriage to Janet Rigsbee on the fritz, Morrison’s head wasn’t in the right place to recreate a love letter like his previous record, Tupelo Honey. Instead, he followed the album with Saint Dominic’s Preview, an experiment caught somewhere between the mysticism of Astral Weeks and the rhythm and blues musings of Moondance, offering listeners the best of both worlds.
The album’s diversity of sounds elegantly displays Morrison’s ability to blend genres, traversing between soulful tunes about deep, personal connections and delicate tracks featuring his adoration for the natural world. Saint Dominic’s Preview, along with its predecessor, marks a shift toward Morrison’s love of traditional Celtic music, which would forge the trajectory of the rest of his musical career. Morrison’s sixth solo album serves as an anthology, sifting through his work thus far and harmonizing the various stylings into an experience far grander than the sum of its parts.
Van Morrison loves to open his albums by getting the audience bopping along to an up-tempo number (“Brown-Eyed Girl” on Blowin’ Your Mind, “Domino” on His Band and the Street Choir, “Wild Night” on Tupelo Honey), and this record is no exception. Driven by a relentlessly powerful horn section, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” is a guaranteed crowd pleaser that compares Morrison’s infatuation to that of the pop tunes he was raised on. It is the shortest track on the album, but it packs quite a punch. A sweet, straightforward love song, it’s actually quite surprising the song wasn’t more of a commercial smash. “Jackie Wilson Said” showcases the playful energy of a man who on his next album would cover Kermit the Frog.
The second track on Saint Dominic’s Preview, “Gypsy,” is a prime example of Morrison’s knack for seamlessly marrying the wide array of influences he is pulling from. In only about four and a half minutes, he creates distinct movements within the song, alternating between different time signatures and musical styles. As he tells us in the soulful bridge, Morrison is constantly drawing from different wells and bringing his findings into the present: “No matter where you wander / And no matter where you roam / Any place you hang your hat / You know that that is home.” He has claimed the various sounds he’s picked up over his years as a performer, and he invites us all to do the same.
The sort of song that Ray Charles may have put out a decade earlier, “I Will Be There” is a sweeping declaration of unfaltering loyalty. It may not carry the stylistic complexities found throughout the rest of the album, but it is clearly a tribute to Van Morrison’s soul roots. He is a student of American rhythm and blues music, and he has crafted a song that feels at home among some of his favorite artists. As we see here, Morrison’s lyrics are at their best when he focuses on the minutiae, setting himself apart from many of his peers: “Going to grab my razor and my suitcase and my toothbrush / And my overcoat and my underwear.”
The center of Saint Dominic’s Preview is balanced atop “Listen to the Lion,” an eleven-minute opus reminiscent of the songs of Astral Weeks – although it was originally meant to be featured on Tupelo Honey. One of the most ambitious songs of his career, Morrison uses the track to play around with different vocal methods, even harmonizing with himself and improvising lyrics as he goes. As the story unfolds, Morrison begins to lose his ability to speak, becoming the song’s subject as he growls with visceral passion. “And I shall search my very soul for the lion,” hums Morrison, and indeed he has found him.
The record’s title track ties back to the spiritual themes at the album’s core. Using stream of consciousness lyricism that calls to mind Bob Dylan, Van Morrison is leading his listeners on a voyage through his own life. “Saint Dominic’s Preview” is a reflection on the singer’s past that uses his music idols – such as Edith Piaf and Hank Williams – as place markers. With a deceptively simplistic chord progression, Morrison crafts a tune that instantly sounds like a seasoned classic. Between the grand, boastful chorus and the restrained, graceful verses, this is a song that makes a point of being perfectly designed to meet a variety of different moods.
A spiritual successor to “And It Stoned Me,” with its abiding appreciation of natural beauty and the importance of male bonding, “Redwood Tree” calls upon many lyrical and aesthetic themes that we have seen throughout Van Morrison’s canon. Partially due to the impassioned backing vocals (featuring, among others, Morrison’s wife at the time), the track becomes a gospel hymn, with Mother Earth assuming the place of God. Van Morrison’s childhood has always been a source of great inspiration for him, particularly surrounding the adventures that young friends so often take together, and this song sees an introspective speaker retracing the steps of his youth.
To close out the album, Morrison includes another delightfully lengthy track, “Almost Independence Day,” a familial jam session that is as smooth as an aged bourbon. The song captures the atmosphere of sitting by the seaside, listening to the world churn on around you. Looking toward the future, Morrison uses the track to experiment with new instrumental sounds, as evidenced by the presence of a Moog synthesizer. As the song reaches its conclusion, the speaker realizes just how small he is in the grand scheme of things, and Morrison’s voice is reduced to a hushed whisper.
When the smoke clears, Saint Dominic’s Preview remains one of Van Morrison’s most optimistic records, even though it was born out of a period of personal turmoil for the singer. It is often a celebration of life itself, a reflective piece that also leaves its listeners heartened by an overpowering adoration for the world around them. Although it didn’t have any terribly successful singles, the album was Morrison’s biggest commercial hit in the US until the release of Keep It Simple 36 years later. Perhaps that is because the record is best digested as a single, complete narrative, a continuous story that takes forty-one minutes to reach its joyful conclusion.