Over the decades, Van Morrison’s role within the tower of song has shifted from chief visionary officer to head of complaints. It’s not a promotion. The title track of his new album, Latest Record Project, Volume 1, is a rebuke to those who insist on living in an artist’s past rather than his present. A laudable sentiment, perhaps, but one less easy to put into practice when Morrison’s present consists of 28 tracks which hone an already ornery worldview to a paranoiac peak. When he isn’t griping about his divorce he’s peddling half-baked conspiracy theories, sneering at internet users and ‘media junk’ and bitching about modern music, crooked politicians and false prophets.
Musically, Morrison’s anti-lockdown, mask-burning meltdown could have been rather fun. Instead, his new album is too long and a bit lazy, his ire wrapped in rote, off-the-peg blues, soul and R&B shapes, while his tendency to portray himself as an honest tiller of the earth — raking the topsoil, never digging too deep — in a world of crooks founders in banality. ‘Only A Song’ is a dispiriting deconstruction of the mysterious act of creation. Once Morrison traded in transcendence. Now he simply shows us his working.
So much for the album. On with the show. COVID be damned, Van has been champing at the bit to get back on stage since the first lockdown — and to a certain extent you could tell. The online concert, filmed at Peter Gabriel’s Real World complex, found him in lively form. This is an artist who has been leaving awkward pauses between songs for 50 years. The lack of a crowd was hardly going to throw him off his stride.
On a plainly dressed stage and backed by an unfussily accomplished band — rumpled and geezerish to a man, with the exception of backing singer Dana Masters — Morrison pulled focus in a pinstripe suit, fedora, natty silk neckerchief and coach driver’s shades, accessorizing his sax with a gold microphone. Resembling a cross between a rogue Blues Brother and a dandy Womble, he controlled proceedings in the manner of an old school bandleader, the kind who keeps musicians in line with cryptic hand signals and swift karate chops. On ‘Have I Told You Lately’ — awkwardly retooled from a lush ballad into perky jump-blues — he handed out solos to his band like homework. When the music gripped him he closed his eyes and jerked his arm up and down, as though battling with a particularly stubborn Louvre blind.
The set leaned heavily on Latest Record Project, Volume 1, which was a shame. The songs rolled by, a bluebeat shuffle here, a sour waltz-time ballad there. There was a glut of biting garage-band blues. Pretty much everything could have been written in the pre-Beatles era. Now and then a new original emerged from the blanket of blandness to tickle our feet. ‘Up County Down’ was fun, Van honking on sax as banjo rippled around him. ‘Blue Funk’, which resembles his 1970s steamroller ‘I’ve Been Working’, was fine and fiery.
Within these comfortable songs, the surly sermonizing poked out like busted bed springs. ‘Need a real live audience to perform!’ he shouted during the chugging ‘Where Have All The Rebels Gone?’. ‘No gigs, no choice, no voice,’ went ‘Deadbeat Saturday Night’. ‘Why do you care what’s trending?’ he barked on the already notorious ‘Why Are You On Facebook?’. My heart went out to Dana Masters, six feet behind him and parroting this nonsense.
As the set unfolded, by no means unpleasantly, I tried to think of another artist of comparable stature who insists on playing so few of his greatest songs. Never mind crowd pleasers such as ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Moondance’ and ‘Gloria’, none of which Morrison performed here. He also routinely ignores beauties such as ‘Madame George’, ‘In The Garden’, ‘Listen To The Lion’, ‘A Sense Of Wonder’ and dozens more works of real genius.
Why he chooses to do so is something of a mystery. It’s certainly not because he can no longer cut it. At 75, Morrison’s voice remains not just remarkably strong and true, but also dextrous, playful, fluid. When he did delve briefly into past glories, the gulf between what he settles on being and what he could still be was actually rather heartbreaking. ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ was tender and elegiac, buffeted by acoustic guitar and warm horns. ‘Cleaning Windows’ was fresh and funky, and when he sang, ‘I’m a working man in my prime,’ for a moment it felt like it could almost be true. Rumors of Morrison’s demise are much exaggerated, but right now his gift deserves greater focus than he seems willing to give it. The man himself would no doubt counter with the old blues adage: don’t look back.