Forgoing the obvious hits and contemporary pop star collaborators, iconoclast Van Morrison raises the bar for what duet albums can and should be.
Duets albums are often problematic for a number of reasons. Generally endeavored by aging musicians looking to reach a younger audience by pairing with contemporary pop stars with whom they have little to nothing in common, musically or otherwise, these sessions can be awkward at best and career-tarnishing train wrecks at worst. Carrying an unmistakable air of commerce, these quick cash-ins may look good on paper but rarely result in any sort of satisfactory artistic fruition. There are, of course, exceptions to this phenomenon, and thankfully Van Morrison’s Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue is just that: exceptional.
By largely eschewing younger artists in favor of his contemporaries (Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe, P.J. Proby, and Steve Winwood, among others), Morrison elevates his duets collection from mere cash-in to thoughtful artistry. Given the diversity of his sparring partners, the album shows he’s lost none of his stylistic sense of adventure. While sticking largely to soul and R&B territory, there are touches of jazz, country, pop balladry, and sundry spaces in between.
Adhering to a clearly thought out approach in both song and artists selections, the few younger duet partners share a direct musical lineage with the various facets of Morrison’s omnivorous musicality. While Joss Stone’s verses on “Wild Honey” sound uncharacteristically reserved, her previous work with assorted American soul legends makes her a natural collaborator with Morrison. So too is the choice of Gregory Porter on “The Eternal Kansas City”. With its bluesy jazz arrangement, Porter, a powerhouse vocalist deserving of broader recognition, shines along side Morrison, who is clearly enjoying himself. It’s a mind-blowing session that finds both singers going toe-to-toe before ultimately ending in a draw.
Morrison, too, finds a sympathetic set of ears in primary co-producer Don Was. Together they achieve a conviviality reminiscent of Solomon Burke’s stellar 2002 covers album, Don’t Give Up on Me. Like that album, Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue favors tailor-made arrangements and song choices perfectly suited to the performers’ strengths. Not content to simply sing and produce, Morrison delivers a competent, if somewhat rudimentary, alto sax solo on “Higher Than the World”, a duet with George Benson.
Proving himself a marvelous duet partner both in front of and behind the boards, Morrison refrains from a demonstrative, heavy-handed approach. Far from the cantankerous crank he’s long been made out to be (rightly or wrongly so), throughout the LP he seems downright affable, thrilled with being able to perform with nearly everyone here. Rather than engaging in vocal pissing matches, he favors nuance and supportive shading, crafting truly blended duets.
Front-loading the set with soul giants Bobby Womack and Mavis Staples on “Some Peace of Mind” and “If I Ever Needed Someone”, Morrison shows his clear infatuation with American soul music. Himself a master of blue-eyed soul, his keening vocals mesh perfectly with both Womack and Staples. Throughout each duet, he sounds downright exuberant teamed with this pair of soul legends, finding himself more than holding his own.
While certainly having matured and settled into a slightly lower register, Morrison’s voice still posses the raw power and intensity that made it so compelling, both with Them and as a solo artist. This retention of vocal prowess shows an artist in complete control of his instrument, effortlessly revisiting and bringing new life to his back catalog, imbuing each song with warmth that feels more essential than perfunctory.
Opting for deeper, more recent cuts in favor of the obvious classic hits, Duets shows an artist who takes his work seriously enough to put deliberate and measured thought into the whole of the process, creating art for art’s sake rather than financial gain. Only “Carrying the Torch”, a somewhat overwrought ballad with Clare Teal, feels slightly incongruous. A lovely song, placed in any other context it would likely shine. Here it feels a detour from Morrison’s true stylistic passions. By contrast, Teal’s voice is a bit too pure and, like Stone’s tepid performance, lacks the necessary grain and character to stand alongside Morrison at his best.
Sung as a straight duet, “Get on With the Show” finds Morrison and Fame twinning their vocals, singing in a densely tangled style that often finds one overlapping the other. Morrison’s iconic burr manages to overpower Fame’s more subtle approach, lessening the effect of what could’ve created work akin to Fame’s own duets with Alan Price. But still, like his duets with Winwood (“Fire in the Belly“) and Chris Farlow (“Born to Sing“), it’s a thrill to hear these two contemporaries together.
All in all, Duets serves as a triumphant summation of a stellar career now spanning over half a century. Allowing others to join the celebration simply makes it all the more enjoyable, and a treat for those fans of both Morrison and his duet partners.