What does it sound like?:
Van Morrison may be 74 but there is little sign of his slowing up. This is his fifth album in just over three years and his third this decade of all new material. There is a mellow laid back feel to this one – reminiscent at times of ‘Magic Time’. The arrangements are simple understated guitar, piano, organ, drums and bass. Morrison’s voice is in remarkable shape. He doesn’t extend it much – the days of ‘Listen to the Lion’ or ‘Summertime in England’ are perhaps behind him – but that control and expressiveness are still there, particularly on tracks like ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and ‘You Don’t Understand’.
Some of Van’s old themes are here, present and correct, belying the mellowness of the sound. ‘Fame Will Eat the Soul’ (with vocal guesting by Righteous Brother Bill Medley) revisits his obviously genuine horror at the corrosive power of celebrity. ‘You Don’t Understand’ is the darkest song on the album, a slow brooding blues which is Van at his most misanthropic and paranoid. ‘Nobody in Charge’ is an enjoyable pop at politicians ‘waffling endlessly’ and ‘getting paid too much for screwing up’. Which is probably as close as we’ll get to Van Morrison commenting on Brexit.
But there is also a warmth here. ‘Days Gone By’ closes the album, incorporating ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and celebrating memories of being young and foolish (though he still has a sideswipe about how he ‘had to fight’). ‘March Winds in February’ could have fitted in comfortably on ‘Hard Nose The Highway’. ‘If We Wait for Mountains’, co-written with Don Black, is a schmaltzy but lovely song, which observes ‘Lovers walking hand in hand/Sound of music from a big band’ (surely more Black than Morrison there) and that there are ‘wonders all around us, and life is all we’ve got’.
Best of all is ‘Up on Broadway’. Over the years Morrison’s time in California in the 70s has been a rich seam for him, starting of course with the ‘St Dominic’s Preview’ album. And he’s returned to it recently, with ‘In Tiburon’ on 2016’s Keep Me Singing’, and now with this gorgeous reflective song capturing how ‘Up on Broadway its so good to be alive’. This has always been the paradox of Van Morrison – how he is capable of both the most splenetic condemnations of his fellow man, and yet also of the most sublime sense of wonder and bliss.
There’s plenty of filler amongst these fourteen tracks – several perfectly serviceable rockabilly, country and laid back tunes which frankly he can do in his sleep, and possibly did. But there are 5 or 6 tracks here which are Van Morrison in terrific form. Take the best from this album, ‘Keep Me Singing’, and 2012’s ‘Born to Sing: No Plan B’ and you would have one absolutely imperious piece of work from someone who still has plenty to offer.
What does it all *mean*?
There’s nothing dramatically new here. Van has mined this seam many times. But when he’s as good as he is in the best of this record, who cares?
Goes well with…
Lemonade and Paris buns
Might suit people who like…
His other 40 plus albums. It’s a truly remarkable body of work and whilst this isn’t up there with the very best of them it’s worthy of a place in the Van canon.