Van Morrison: Born to Sing; No Plan B (Exile)

Van Morrison: If in Money We Trust
Van Morrison: Born to Sing; No Plan B (Exile)

Because he's released many indifferent or awful albums in recent decades (the prosecution calls What's Wrong With This Picture of 2004), one of Van Morrison's best – the appropriately titled Keep It Simple, 2008 – went largely overlooked. It was refined, focused and he sounded almost at ease with the world. Almost.

While this isn't quite up there with that, its live-in-the-studio immediacy, modest songs embellished by melodic sax (from Van) and the small jazz band, and some elegantly understated clubland ballads (End of the Rainbow, Retreat and View) pull this close enough.

Morrison -- never a man you'd lightly say this about – sounds relaxed here and eases you in with the groove-riding Open the Door To Your Heart (“it's need not greed”) but then winds the tension up when he throws in “don't you think I know who my enemies are? This time they pushed me too far”.

This is among the usual litany of Van complaints about how he has been hard done by in life, of which there seems scant evidence. He's just a perma-grump whom even Spike Milligan famously couldn't get a laugh out of.

So here, on the otherwise lovely and melodic Going Down to Monte Carlo, he sings about how hell is other people (“their pettiness amazes me, even after I've gone this far”) and how he needs get away from them. It sounds like yet another swipe at management/record companies (“after everything I've worked for they're going to throw everything away”), but perhaps we should read less into these whines and appreciate the best he offers.

His sax has a lazy sound alongside muted trombone and clarinet on the old school jazz r'n'b of the title track which suits the mood, and where required the superb musicianship is understated.

A highpoint is the slinky eight-minute If in Money We Trust – with a whip-crack solo by pianist Paul Moran – where Morrison insinuates himself into the moody melody, pulls you in as he drops down to a whisper before the closing minutes and it slips to an ethereal tone poem.

These days he mightn't hold notes, twist syllables and scat as often, and the spiritual search has here been sidelined (Mystic of the East may explain why) for secular concerns (capitalism, those enemies). But this swings (the big band sound of the economic ensemble on Close Enough for Jazz) and sways and sometimes swaggers. It sounds heartfelt, has dry-eyed observations and delivers earthy, crossroad blues on the eight minute Pagan Heart.

Another worthwhile late-career high from Van.

Just as well, at 67 he's a bit late for a plan B.

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Jamie - Oct 2, 2012

I, like many of my generation, considered him an essential part of my record collection, loved him. Then I went to see him, mid eighties, at the Horden Pavilion in Sydney.

I still rate it as the worst concert I have ever been to, and I think, at the time it was the most expensive. He was having a bad day at the office, no doubt. Not a single word to the audience, mumbled his way through songs, even gave up part way through a couple, shared the odd joke with a band member, but didn't even acknowledge us with a nod, let alone a word.

Took me about 20 years to be motivated to listen to anything of his again. But there are some damn fine bits in his catalogue, aren't there?

Jeremy - Oct 3, 2012

You are not alone. I had the misfortune of having to endure Van The Man at the 1995 Fleadh Festival in London. He spent his entire set facing the drums and mumbling. A grumpy thundercloud in an otherwise sunny day spent enjoying Sinead O'Connor, Shane MacGowan, ALT, John Martyn, Kirsty MacColl, Michelle Shocked and Frances Black. He was almost worse than a flat, out of tune, next big thing called Boyzone!

BK - Oct 14, 2012

First impressions of the new album, I rate "Mystic of the East" & "Retreat and View" as highlights. Yes Van has employs reoccurring themes just as a visual artist uses signature elements, motifs. That is his way. The reviews of his recent concerts have been strong, usually the case when he has new material to work with. Saw him perform "Keep it Simple" in San Fran a couple of years ago and it was incredibly powerful moving. " What's wrong with this Picture" gave birth to the tender vignette "Little Village" and for that I'm thankful.

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