Van Morrison: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Van Morrison
What's Wrong With This Picture?
Blue Note

Van Morrison is a deeply strange performer — just check out the footage of him in The Last Waltz, where, in his unitard and cape, he looks as though he were just beamed down from Mars for his exuberant, bizarrely histrionic performance of “Caravan”, which seems largely out of sync spiritually with everything around it. The band itself seems mystified by him — though he is making a dramatically spastic spectacle of himself on stage, he seems trapped in a private world of his own, where his strenuous emotionality on this occasion has some sort of legible context. It’s clear he’s maniacally driven to perform, but whether or not he cares about any specific facts about the audience is hard to tell. Morrison’s music often seems that way, preoccupied with the singer’s personal obsessions with his tortured spirituality or, as is increasingly the case, the grievances of being famous.

Morrison has apparently had his troubles with record industry personnel all along, beginning with his reportedly acrimonious relationship with Bang! Records honcho Bert Berns in the late ’60s. And since as early as 1973’s Hard Nose the Highway, he has been complaining bitterly of music business cynicism and phoniness. “Thanks for the Information” from 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and “Professional Jealousy” from 1991’s Hymns to the Silence returned to the theme; but nowhere has he sounded so vehemently disgusted with everything related to being a music professional as he does on this album, where virtually every song finds him venting about the how much he hates being a celebrity, how he has contempt for those who misconstrue his styles, how people in the press are “scum”, and how consumed he feels by his own legend, for which he seems to disavow any responsibility.

There are some signs of a sense of humor — he even breaks into a chuckle on the opening song — and these are almost enough to make one believe that “Whinin’ Boy Moan” is an arch piece of self-deprecation — almost, but not quite. The complaining reaches its apogee on “Goldfish Bowl”, whose refrain runs “I don’t have a hit song, I don’t have no TV show / I don’t have no reason to live in a goldfish bowl”. One could be hopeful, and pretend that he’s in character. But it’s much more likely he’s just speaking from his heart, as guarded and paranoid as it seems to have become. The logic, too, of the lyric seems slightly preposterous; at first it seems modest, but then it seems more like willful blindness that he claims to believe that he has no idea why he would have devoted fans who cherish the music he made in the past, music that dignified his Celtic roots and extended their international influence, music that embraced a sophisticated, philosophical view of religion, cutting through its dogma to the solace it could by and the wonder it can inspire. He just seems to want to dismiss all that: “Too many myths,” he sings on another song, sweeping away all interpretations and appreciations of his past. Now it’s admirable that he wants to fight the cult of personality that’s sprung up about him, but wouldn’t a better approach be not to mention it at all? “I’m just trying to stay in the game,” he sings, but that goes without saying. By pleading so insistently that he wants to be left alone, he makes you believe he actually wants the opposite, and has sour grapes about not getting it. If the attention his records garner make him so frustrated, one wonders, why does he bother to make them at all?

Still, it is this contradiction, and his stubborn refusal to age gracefully and be marginalized by being made legendary, that makes him so interesting, making him as alienating as he is fascinating, investing his music with a tension that animates what might otherwise be staid, accomplished if not at all innovative, performances that one finds here. One can’t exactly complain about the music — more of the jazz/blues/soul blend he’s perfected the last decade, sounding like a Ray Charles record from his ABC/Paramount years recorded with a digital sheen. The songs all follow standard blues progressions, and nothing in the way they are structured will surprise listeners. Of course, they are not supposed to; they are to soothe listeners with their reliable predictability, and provide the satisfaction of pattern perfected and completed. All the musicians are eminently professional, and their soloing exhibits their virtuosity through how efficient and economical it is.

Continuing his tradition of employing lost British stars from the ’60s, Morrison here brings back Mr. Acker Bilk of “Stranger on the Shore” fame to play clarinet on the gentle mid-tempo shuffle “Somerset”, one of the album’s few truly relaxed numbers. It’s a lovely song, giving a sense of how much more pleasant this album could have been had Morrison set aside his gripes and concentrated on what he does as well as anyone: injecting a soulfulness into quotidian scenes of comfort without ever making them mawkish, and moving his listeners with extorting them emotionally with a wheedling sentimentality. But maybe the unforced, and uncheapened nostalgia of the album’s gentle moments is only earned only by his unflinching honesty about what annoys him. He is a master at enabling us to feel what feels; but for too much of this album, that’s an unfortunate gift.