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Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is timeless. Rarely has an album so effortlessly managed to feel both modern and centuries old. The emotions expressed throughout could just as easily be either reflections coming from a deathbed, or from a teenager experiencing love for the first time. It speaks both in cryptic, elusive imagery (see the title song, which opens the album) and in devastating specifics (he paints a picture of “Madame George….in the corner playing dominoes in drag” with a painful, aching sorrow). There are moments of pure bliss - “The Way Young Lovers Do” is bursting at the seams with euphoric jazz; “Sweet Thing” describes a love so encompassing that he “will not remember that I ever felt pain.” Other songs, like “Beside You” and “Slim Slow Slider” are defined by a creeping, raw sense of sadness. It’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
Few dispute the endurance of Astral Weeks, and to a lesser extent its follow-up, Moondance – so carefree, infectious, and drunk on life that it often feels like a weekend you never want to end, the kind you haven’t had in a while but still yearn for. It’s that very timelessness that makes the Van of 2016 (at the age of 71) feel a world away from his younger counterpart – although not because of a dramatic change in his style, which has remained remarkably consistent. Van’s most recent projects seem at once confident in their direction and deeply unsure of their purpose. Musically, they are exceedingly comfortable in their own skin, assured and skillfully crafted; in spirit, however, they are often running in place. His previous release, Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue (made up entirely of re-recorded Van songs) is for the rather thin subset of the population that wants to listen to old Van Morrison classics but feels that the original cuts were in dire need of more Michael Bublé. None of the re-recordings are unpleasant but few ever truly justify their existence. Similarly, 2012’s Born To Sing: Plan B offers no new twists or truly memorable ideas. Its title track finds Van repeatedly proclaiming that he is “born to sing” and that he needs to “keep on keeping on” and “paying those dues”. It feels like a half-hearted pep talk, an inner monologue to get him through the recording sessions – a stark contrast to the passion of his earlier work. Both albums, despite obvious shortcomings, were received warmly.
This dynamic is far from uncommon. Generally, artists who earned legendary status early on are ultimately graded on a curve if they display longevity, even if their later work proves out the law of diminishing returns. U2 forcibly penetrated our iPhones with the aggressively mediocre Songs of Innocence and were rewarded with a five-star Rolling Stone review. Bob Dylan continues to rack up rave reviews despite the fact that his last album has him croaking his way through a 14-minute tribute to the Titanic that feels as long as the James Cameron film on the same subject. While David Bowie earned every bit of praise he garnered for this year’s Blackstar – a dark, adventurous record that stands as one of the boldest artistic statements of his career – he is no stranger to this treatment; his 2013 comeback record, The Next Day, is littered with filler and half-baked ideas, but was still hailed as a return to form.
New Van Morrison releases make considerably less noise than those from his aging peers, perhaps because his discography is so criminally underrated in the first place. A consensus has hardened that Astral Weeks and Moondance are his most essential releases. This is not necessarily incorrect, but look deeper and you will find a career of great versatility and underappreciated gems. Veedon Fleece is equally vital; the album drips with an atmosphere that is unique within Morrison’s discography. Its textures are not unlike Astral Weeks, but its narrator seems more delicate and uneasy, as if he expects his world to come crumbling down at any moment. The bleak cloud hanging over the album is occasionally interrupted with bursts of sunshine, such as the irresistible acoustic pop of “Bulbs,” but it’s a somber affair with a sneaky, lingering power. Few other Morrison albums have its ambition, but plenty of others are unjustly ignored, from the unbridled joy of His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey to the darker and more abstract Common One and Saint Dominic’s Preview. While these albums now feel forgotten, Van Morrison’s prolific run in the 1970s and early 1980s is surprisingly rich and rewarding. He never again made an album quite as perfect as Astral Weeks – and he’s more interesting for it.
Van’s newest album, Keep Me Singing, never ventures too far outside of the comfort zone he settled into with Born To Sing, but some meaningful improvements are made along the margins. Lyrically, there are still plenty of thin platitudes stretched to their limit; the title track in particular seems unconcerned with finding anything of value to say. There are musical stumbles as well. Mid-album snoozer “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword” builds its foundation on a standard blues groove that a younger Van likely would have built into something multi-dimensional. Instead, it goes nowhere because it doesn’t aspire to. Aside from a fairly cookie-cutter guitar solo, each new minute of the song sounds exactly like the last.
For all the flaws, however, there is something warm and inviting about the familiarity of Morrison’s approach here. “Out In the Cold Again” is elegant and moving in the way many of his early-to-mid-1970s ballads were. “Memory Lane”, one of the album’s most emotionally effective moments, feels like exactly the sort of yearning nostalgia one would expect from a latter-day Van Morrison album. Much of Keep Me Singing flirts with blues, as his work so often does, but “Going Down To Bangor” is the album’s most direct take on the genre – and simplicity aside, it proves effective. “Too Late”, the first single, doesn’t wear its overly polished production particularly well, but it’s a likeable standout that recalls the amiable, straightforward pop of His Band and the Street Choir.
Earlier this year, I saw Van Morrison perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. As a showcase for artists grappling with being past their prime, JazzFest was intriguing. A few stages over, Pearl Jam were energetically tearing through many of their early-1990s classics; earlier in the afternoon, Mystikal had tested whether a 45-year-old man can still convincingly perform “Shake Ya Ass” (the answer was not “no”). The results were decidedly more mixed for Van Morrison. His setlist choice was underwhelming; his vocals were uneven, sometimes strained; his lack of energy was palpable. The crowd reacted in kind, with participation and interest fizzling during some of the longer and less engaging jams. When he played “Brown Eyed Girl”, however, the crowd lit up. None of the flaws of his performance disappeared for those three minutes, but the crowd greeted the song like an old friend – a welcome respite from a set stuffed with deep cuts and blues covers. Keep Me Singing leans on that sort of goodwill engendered by familiarity. He doesn’t take a single risk and he doesn’t have to. Van Morrison has been around forever (for some perspective, his debut album came out before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot; before John Lennon met Yoko Ono; even before Apple killed the iPhone’s headphone jack). His relevance has fluctuated throughout his five decades in the spotlight, but the consistency of his style has been a reliable constant. In a music world that has rapidly and often dramatically changed in recent decades, there is a certain comfort in knowing that some things never will.