The good news is Van Morrison is back to form with this new release. Belfast’s temperamental son was utterly prolific throughout the 90’s turning out an album every other year and if last year’s collaboration with Linda Gail (`You Win Again’) didn’t quite come off, fans won’t be disappointed this time.
Van’s vocals are everything you expect them to be. The opening of `Talk Is Cheap’ could pass for vintage Dylan – Kicked your gift-horse in the teeth/Crowd gathered round in the street/You killed your saviour, new one can’t be found/Talk is cheap your saviour’s highway-bound – and Van is on his way.
As one of music’s more reluctant stars his uncomfortable relationship with celebrity surfaces on the same track (You read the tabloids every day/They’re giving lots of things away/They want to build you up/So they can bring you down).
It’s hardly surprising to hear The Grumpy One take a swing at the paparazzi but the mood on this album is generally quite upbeat. Many of the songs are retrospective from someone who has done it all but unlike Dylan’s darkly brilliant Time Out Of Mind Van is looking back at the good things. Even the album cover uses a snapshot of a record shop in Bath, England (Nasher’s Music Store) where the emphasis is vinyl rather than CDs and the big sign in the window reads Memorabilia &Records.
It seems at the ripe young age of 57 he’s full of energy and rediscovering his bite.
All but one of 15 tracks are new originals – the exception is Hoagy Carmichael’s `Georgia On My Mind’ which has been covered memorably by both Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. It’s a number Van usually plays live and on this outing it’s Richard Dunn’s tinkling ivories and Van’s spiraling vocals that catch the ear.
He’s a city boy and traveling down this road he flits comfortably from Detroit to Belfast (`Choppin’ Wood’) where his father worked in the shipyards. Actually there’s a sense of homecoming here – on `What Makes The Irish Heart Beat’ he sings All that trouble all that grief/That’s why I had to leave/Staying away too long is in defeat/Why I’m singing this song/Why I’m heading back home/That’s what makes the Irish heart beat.
America has always provided his musical inspiration. He grew up listening to Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker so that when he formed the band Them in 1964 their home turf was [rhythm and blues. Those influences blossomed when he left for New York three years later to pursue a solo career. His now illustrious album catalogue began with `Blowin’ Your Mind’ but it was the visionary classic `Astral Weeks’ in 1968 that really launched him.
Following a path to California via Boston he maintained that standard to record `Moondance,’ `Tupelo Honey’ and `St Dominic’s Preview’ before returning to Ireland, marking a shift in mood with the more contemplative `Veedon Fleece’ in 1974.
Taking a break that lasted till 1977 when he released A Period of Transition it was the Wavelength album that refloated him commercially the following year. Right through the 80’s and 90’s he cut a host of quality albums, increasingly exploring spiritualism and self–discovery. The sheer volume of material is itself remarkable given he maintained a steady touring schedule across Europe and the U.S.
Indeed Van’s infamously sullen persona belies his musical grace and lyrical beauty. Backed by a reliably superb set of musicians he is peerless as a performer when he delivers on stage. Hitting the mark isn’t guaranteed however and every fan will recall occasions when he looked too sulky or out of sorts to go for it. Other performers don’t get away with that sort of inconsistency but for Van Morrison it doesn’t really matter – fans keep coming back knowing that if they catch him on a good night the show will be something special.
On this album the band is excellent across a diverse set of R `n’ B, rock `n’ roll, blues, soul, jazz, skiffle and country numbers. Richard Dunn’s Hammond Organ lends that particular feel while other solos – Martin Winning’s alto sax on the beautiful `Steal My Heart Away’, Acker Bilk’s clarinet on `Evening Shadows’ for which Van wrote lyrics, Jake Walker’s viola on `The Beauty of Days Gone By’ each stand out.
As for the main man, when he’s not in full voice he shows he can play too, contributing alto sax, acoustic guitar and sounding like a lineman on harmonica for `Fast Train.’ The Grumpy One – who also produced the album – has done it again. ♦