Van starts this one off with a pissy rant. “Copycats ripped off my words. Copycats ripped off my songs. Copycats ripped off my melodies.” First, let’s acknowlege that this is true. What is Bruce Springsteen but a slimmer, handsomer American Van, the Celtic mysticism swapped out for Jersey populism? Still and all, Morrison’s been singing this tune for years, and it gets more shrill and unflattering with each iteration. Fortunately enough, after those first three lines he manages to get over his annoyance: “It doesn’t matter what they say. It doesn’t matter what they do. All that matters is my relationship to you.” In a wonderful and unexpected turnaround, we’ve left behind all bitterness and swapped it out for an elegantly simple, touching statement of love and commitment. Van then proceeds to get the object of his devotion “in my car” and drive, drive far away from that bitterness and from those sour grapes, as far away as he can possibly get, to an Edenic “town called Paradise.” Every song about driving in a car should of course be fun to drive to, and “A Town Called Paradise” just gallops along, a 1-4 chord progression (and that’s it – there are just two chords in this song and Van doesn’t need a third) building and building, with gospel backing vocals and soaring horns between every line, and it feels like between every line we’re hundreds of miles away from where we were in the line before it. The song goes on for over six minutes, building and building to a tremendous, uplifting climax. And then, instead of closing after the climax, it stays at that emotional and musical plateau for a minute or two, holding everything up at its highest height, steadily, keeping it there, like the promise the word “Paradise” makes to us, a promise which it gets harder and harder to believe once you’re a grown-up.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, the album this song is from, was released in 1986, when Van was 41. Rarely-mentioned and underappreciated in his catalogue, the record is in many ways a perfect rock album for grown-ups. The production is professional and slick – at times, almost overly slick. The tempos are slow and relaxed. There’s nothing frenetic, no moments of dire urgency, no rock and roll franticness. The instruments – keyboards, pianos, backup singers – all float in a glassy kind of haze. Fans of a rawer Van Morrison – the R&B Van, the garagey Van – would be excused for thinking of this album as soft. It is soft. This is the work of a middle-aged rock and roller who is fully, openly copping to and embracing his middle-agedness. As such, the general inoffensive prettiness of the music is a perfect extension of the theme. Under the musical haze, though, all the big themes of middle age are pondered. Looming death. Physical and emotional “defects.” The temptation to sell out. Lost childhood. This last theme is most poignantly handled by Van’s frequent overt references to Astral Weeks, to which this record is trying in some way to respond. On “In the Garden,” Van takes us to “that garden, we with rain.” It’s the same garden from “Sweet Thing.” Or at least it’s the same words.
A lot of Van fans point to Veedon Fleece as the next record you should get if you’re obsessed with Van’s iconic Astral Weeks, which he recorded when he was 23 and which he never topped (which maybe no one in rock and roll ever topped??), and Veedon Fleece is in fact frequently great – songs written by a new adult, looking back on the ecstasy and agony of his youth from a more sober perspective. I think No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is where you go after that – to me, those three albums taken in sequence create a kind of time-lapse view of what it’s like to grow up, Van’s searching and soulful quest from burning youth all the way to a more richly modulated, wiser middle age. I love how age-appropriate No Guru feels. It’s a record your dad would put on in the car. I’ve listened to it in the car with my dad in fact, and if I ever have kids I fully intend to make them think I’m lame by listening to No Guru in the car in turn. At the same time, Van wears it well. When so many of his peers from the 60s were utterly lost at sea, making crappy-sounding digital recordings, halfheartedly twiddling with synthesizers, trying to keep up, Van was hooked into something powerful and real and affecting, all while giving up on the young man’s game of pop chart-topping, leaving that to the “copycats.” There’s something really flattering and fitting about Van embracing middle age and seeing the same soul and shimmer in there, tamped down and crumpled up in places but still brightly shining.