Hearing the best and worst of Van Morrison
Van Morrison has just released the rather lacklustre Born to Sing: No Plan B - his 35th studio album. In a career that has seen far too many releases, this is just another. It might as well be Too Long in Exile or Days Like This or The Healing Game or anything else he's released across the past 20 years. That is to say there are glimpses, there are glimmers, there are slight reminders of that earlier, fearsome, wonderful, sublime and otherworldly magic. But it's a fading photograph. And this is trace-around stuff at best. Mostly it's banal filler: Born to Sing has him creating lyrics to the song Close Enough for Jazz - an instrumental resurrected from nearly 20 years ago. The result is something Diana Krall would probably turn her nose up at - yet, earlier on this same album Morrison tirades against "phony pseudo-jazz".
Well he's always been more interested in his own form of self-preservation rather than most other people's idea of self-awareness.
Reviews for Born to Sing: No Plan B have largely been positive - including this 4-star Rolling Stone review from David Fricke, a writer who is very good, even better considering you'll never quite guess when he's simply offering up four- and five-star reviews because the magazine demands them in exchange for advertising money. Fricke is still a trusted writer, an authority, a man of taste - but four- and five-star Rolling Stone magazine reviews reek of vested interest; of the powers that be assigning a rating and then a writer. In that order.
I get the feeling that reviews of Born to Sing might be positive because the music magazine world has done its time re-championing Neil Young and especially Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Is it now Van's turn for a late-in-his-career reappraisal? Well it's a lot harder to convince that Morrison has turned out anything of great value in the past 20 years. What he's been best at is reminding the world of a) his former glories (his best material from a golden run of remarkable albums in the 1970s) and b) his self-serving nature that has him singing about himself to remind you all of how great he was and - apparently - still is.
Born to Sing is no left turn here either. The title (and title song) gives an obvious clue and early on the record - when he's at least sounding passionate (the track where he bemoans the faux-jazz that he will go on to serve himself) - Morrison spits out a line about "after everything I've worked for". You listen to his records post-1990 and he really hasn't done much work. He's talked a lot. But said nothing.
Too Long in Exile's title song was perhaps the nadir, "Too long in exile/Too long not singing my song" he said, barely trying. Announcing himself to the world - as if he'd been on anything but a self-imposed break (and it was only long by Van standards; a man who has pumped out far too many records for the good ones to stand up now and block out the bad). Too Long in Exile was dreary and lazy and it set a tone for albums with title songs that talk the artist up without really delivering anything to match the sentiment. Back on Top's title song has Van announcing that he's "Always strivin', always climbing way beyond my will" - in the middle of what would have been better titled Just Another Van Morrison Album.
Born to Sing: No Plan B makes you wonder what the Plan B might have/should have been - it reminds that this great contrarian, this all-too prickly pear, is a long way off that wild, mercurial sound that drove those wonderful records; albums that still allure, that still dazzle, that manage - still - to stand outside the time when they were created.
I've written, already, about Astral Weeks - an album that still pulls me in every time; that mystifies, that conjures a range of emotions, that evokes a journey every time.
And I could write at length about Moondance (the title track kills that record - just skip it and play everything else) or His Band and The Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic's Preview, Veedon Fleece, A Period of Transition - and then the best bits of Common One, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Hard Nose the Highway, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and of course all of the live tour-de-force, It's Too Late to Stop Now - simply one of the great live albums by anyone. Ever.
There is so much to take in with Van Morrison - but he was always a grump so sure of his own importance. He even made up his own genre - Caledonian Soul Music - so as to stand out, to be clearly defined as the best at something. Thing is, back then, he backed it up. He delivered. He's been on glide time ever since...
Dr John worked with Morrison on A Period of Transition, a wonderful record that seems to have slipped under the radar in many ways. Dr John said of Van in his autobiography that he really was difficult to deal with, so horrible in fact, so cruel. Others have said the same. Arrogance taken to a new level, belligerence and stormy moods that threaten to unravel more than decent musicians doing their best to play for the cause and the song - but as Dr John said, every time Van opens his mouth you hear an angel - and it is as if all is forgiven; that horrible energy falls away, it melts. As people melt under that voice, fall prey to the inspiration of the music. To a sound.
But that sound isn't really there anymore. It's mostly just an ugly, angry old man cussing out at his right to be revered.
Every time I hear a new Van Morrison album I'm sent back to the best material that he offered - records that stand up against anything offered by anyone, in terms of the true greats. But it's almost unforgivable how sloppy his attitude is, how deeply uncaring he is for the audience that has helped to make him. I could almost respect that as just the whim of someone headstrong, determined and passionate. But there's no passion there anymore, there's only contempt.
And because he's now taking a gap of a few years between albums we'll have critics telling us that old cliché of someone old approaching their best work from their younger years. Not true here. But when I hear the worst of Van Morrison I am still inspired to go back and dig out the best of Van Morrison. It's just a shame that too many autopilot records and Brown Eyed Girl-milking compilations stand in the way of what was, at one time, an absolutely gobsmackingly brilliant, jaw-droppingly eclectic, electric body of work.
Every time Van Morrison returns from whatever alleged exile, I miss the Van Morrison that mesmerised.