Sound: This double album of previously unheard rarities, now rare in itself, is crying out for an iTunes re-release. Covering the period from 1969 to 1988, only six of the thirty tracks have made it on to other albums, and these appear here as alternate takes. Everything else is "new", and unavailable on any other Van Morrison recording. The musical variety in this collection reflects the experimentation of its author: beginning with straightforward R&B and ending with an Irish Traditional collaboration with The Chieftains, it documents, albeit through "forgotten" tracks, Van's musical journey over a twenty year period.
Of course, the majority never appeared on albums for a reason - they are not among the strongest songs Morrison has recorded. This does not mean, however, that they are bad - listened to on its own terms, this collection is full of great tracks that suprise and delight. Very often an average track will be redeemed by a great bridge, or a standout performance by one of Van's musicians, many veterans from The Caledonia Soul Orchestra long-time guitarist John Platania even shares song-writing credits on two songs.
Contrary to some perceptions of Morrison, a fair amount of musical experimentation can be felt in these recordings. Helped by the eclectism of his band, he incorporates funk, jazz, folk, Blues, and soul with the R&B most know him best for. Sadly, the recording quality is somewhat unpolished background noise at the start of 'Madame Joy' is just one example. Furthermore, there is a sense that these tracks could have been made even better had they been cutting them definitively for an album. Despite this, there are still many delicate touches and beautiful moments that show the professionalism and skill of the musicians involved. // 7
Lyrics: The album's wide scope showcases a great variety of Van's singing techniques, from falsetto on 'Try for Sleep' to the guttural Blues shout of 'Naked in the Jungle', and even spoken word on 'Song of Being a Child'. The performances aren't as strong or as engaged as on his more famous songs, but still impress on many tracks, and will please those who prefer the singer's earlier style compared to the way he sings today. Look out also for Van's humourous affectation of an upper class English accent on 'Twilight Zone'.
Lyrically, the album is mixed. Most of the time the words are subordinate to the voice and the music, which does the main bulk of emotional projection. At best this means that Van's lines are short and sweet, but sometimes they sound half-baked, forcing rhymes unconvincingly. Thematically, the lyrics capture many of Van's moods: angry rants are found in 'Showbusiness' and 'Drumshanbo Hustle', but are countered by the pained self-examination of 'Not Supposed to Break Down' and 'I Have Finally Come to Realise'. For the most part, Morrison pulls off his trick of repeating and emphasising simple phrases, but those looking for poetry akin to Astral Weeks will be disappointed. // 7
Overall Impression: Ultimately this is an album for the more devoted fans, but that doesn't mean there aren't some great songs on it. Like all collections, The Philosopher's Stone is the opposite of homogenous, and doesn't have the unity of an Astral Weeks or Moondance. But for those looking for the tracks that, for whatever reason, never made it onto the main albums, it is essential. The inclusion of the alternate takes is justified by how different they are to the album versions - radically so, in the case of the Dexys-style Northern Soul of 'Real Real Gone' - and among the other recordings there are enough high points to please appeciators. Van Morrison is a musical rover who often seems to judge himself too harshly, and while these tracks are not his greatest, they are testament to an amazingly diverse talent, and would be the 'Greatest Hits' of many a lesser artist. It is definately a good thing they got to see the light of day. // 8