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.
By Graham Reid, posted