Beginning with the opening groans of Van Morrison’s desperately optimistic harmonica, a minor crisis is at play here. “And I got to be so far away / Oh don’t you see”, declares Morrison on the disc’s title track, “All our memories, dreams and reflections / That keep haunting me”. Released only seven months after Dylan’s piercing diatribe on aging and mortality (Love and Theft), the fifty-seven year-old Irish rocker and soul survivor seems to be working from the same palette with his latest offering Down the Road.
While Morrison can’t compete song for song with Dylan’s morbid and brooding demeanor, it’s quickly apparent that isn’t what he’s trying to do. Instead, he sets his feet and belts out his take on the truth, refusing to pull his punches regarding everything from tabloid newsmongers (“Talk is Cheap”) to the mediocrity of popular music (“Whatever Happened to PJ Proby”). The difference now is that his swagger is justified by the wisdom of experience. Then again, Morrison never did need much justification for anything.
Pulling from a mix of the blues, contemporary Irish folk, and a nostalgic pining for old-fashioned 1950s rock and roll, Morrison is as thoroughly convincing and sharp as his 1967 Bang Masters days. He does admit with “All Work and No Play” that perhaps he isn’t as nimble as he once was. “When it comes to the crunch / It’s too much I’ve got to stop,” Morrison reveals. “No pain no gain, It’s all going down the drain”, he finally concedes before the horn section drops in a riff from Duke Ellington’s classic “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”.
While the self-deprecating sense of honesty is authentic, Morrison still remains a commanding presence. From the hard-driving shuffle of “Meet Me in the Indian Summer” to the sublime lilt of “The Beauty of the Days Gone By”, he moves from a shout to a whisper with his typical vigor. Even more telling is that Morrison’s most revealing and poignant moments are offered free of any sort of studio gimmickry, with his vocals pushed to the front of the mix and kept dry as a bone on the ballads “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” and “Steal My Heart Away”. So much is made about exploiting the cracks in the aging armor of rock’s elder statesmen that the actual message goes overlooked. Morrison offers no such opportunity, rendering Down the Road nearly bulletproof and even allowing Morrison the opportunity to tackle the Hoagy Carmichael classic and Ray Charles staple “Georgia on My Mind” without even a hint of self-consciousness.
Bolstered by yet another outstanding collection of backing musicians (including a brief contribution from British skiffle legend Acker Bilk on clarinet on “Evening Shadows”), Down the Road rivals some of Morrison’s strongest work. By tipping his hat to the past, Morrison finds a way to avoid ruminating on the cruelties of time that often accompany those memories. In this sense, Morrison is well aware that the forgotten fate of PJ Proby could potentially be his at any time, as he candidly admits: “I’m making my way down the highway / Still got a monkey on my back / Facing head on and doing it my way / Please can you cut me some slack?”