It’s Sir Van Morrison Now
Earlier this year, Prince Charles knighted the 71-year-old Van Morrison for services to the music industry and tourism in Northern Ireland. This is just one more example, like Dylan winning the Noble Prize for Literature, of how the most important literary soul rebels of a generation are becoming calcified into the new canon. As George Melly famously noted, what begins as revolt turns into style. This way, it can be safely incorporated into the larger culture. It no longer threatens and becomes the new conformity.
So what does old man Morrison have to show us on his 36th studio album? Well, the good news is that he is just as soulful as ever. Morrison uses his liquid-smooth voice to spread out syllables and create a broad and inviting sonic landscape. The Irish singer draws on a variety of vocal traditions, from Celtic folk to contemporary jazz, to Nashville country, to New Age, to the blues, to rock and he combines them through the sheer force of his being. He has been nourished by a lifetime of experiences so that what comes out is a single, individual piece. Morrison’s vocals are distinctly Morrison.
Whether this expresses the true essence of the man, well only Van knows that. But the persona who sings the songs in the first person is a noble, observant, calm human being who has found sweetness in this imperfect world. Sure, he has seen trouble and felt sorrow. However, he has faith in the larger spirit. He declares his faith in the mystic explicitly on “Holy Guardian Angel” and all the songs suggest an engagement with the larger currents of life that exist beyond the self.
Morrison wrote 12 out of the 13 tracks on Keep Me Singing. The title cut and others, including “Let It Rhyme” and “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword”, suggest the musician has found redemption through his art. The songs are joyful and celebratory— and seductive. He’s singing to the muse and the results reveal he has found her! Morrison also plays electric guitar, blues harp, and alto saxophone on various cuts including the instrumental “Caledonia Swing”, which has a name that aptly describes its Gaelic-inflected jazz content.
The album’s one cover tune, “Share Your Love With Me”, is a blues number that was originally a hit for Bobby Bland, but it was also successfully done soulfully by Aretha Franklin and Kenny Rogers gave it a country flair. Morrison does it in the blues/jazz style of Mose Allison and he keeps things loose even if he grunts and growls when needed to reveal his desires. The singer sustains the individual notes, lingering and tasting them for an extra nanosecond before letting them go. He understands it’s a good thing to love and it’s sad when the love is not returned, even if yes, there is pleasure in the yearning.
Morrison is no longer a rebel, it is true. He no longer raves on. His earlier work suggests more radical actions needed to fight against the mediocre and mendacious world that surrounds us. On Keep Me Singing, several of the songs keep him singing for the sake of the song. That’s it. Morrison now reminisces about past loves and lives as his memory flows like a river. The old guy is largely content to accept the human situation and focus on the positive—the bliss of memory, the power of art, transcendent nature, and such. Maybe that’s more insurgent than it seems. But the album is lovely and perhaps that is all that matters.
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