Back in the sixties, bands ran on a short cycle. It was record an album, brief tour and back to the studio to record the next album, rinse, repeat. There were no three and four year gaps between studio albums… or six years when you’re Pearl Jam. In the 70s it was a huge deal and considered potentially career-ending when Springsteen took four years to follow-up Born To Run. In the sixties, only releasing one album a year was considered being artistically indulgent. Creedence Clearwater Revival alone released three landmark albums in 1969. They also played an incendiary set at Woodstock (LP Review: Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Live At Woodstock’ – Released 50 Years Later). One has to wonder when they slept.
Today it’s virtually unheard of to produce that kind of recorded output…artists have more autonomy and hold back to resist “burn out.” Enter Van the Man, Van Morrison. Over the last four years Van has released six albums. Perhaps he thinks we’re still living in the sixties. He must get paid by the song. All of this started with one of his greatest late period albums, Keep Me Singing which we loved here at B&V (LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return). Well, I say “we” loved it at B&V, I loved it… The Rock Chick’s stance on Van has not changed in all the years we’ve been together and her feelings are, well, negative. Van is to the Rock Chick what the Eagles were to the Dude. Which is ironic because the Rock Chick also hates the Eagles. When she asked me what I was writing today, I said, “That Man,” her nickname for Van… she said, “Oh” and in that one syllable expressed as much displeasure as if she’d shouted at me. To each, indeed, their own.
I get it, many people have lost touch with Van. It was the late 60s to mid 70s when his work found its greatest fame. From the spiritual Astral Weeks to the pastoral groove of Veedon Fleece, Van could do no wrong. His albums after that were hit and miss for most people. Van’s style of music has been described as “Celtic Soul” which is perfect. Van has always been a searcher on the spiritual plane. At his best, his music has a transcendent quality. Many of his songs have a way of reaching into your chest cavity and seizing you by the heart. I can’t hear “So Quiet In Here” without going to a Zen bliss place that is hard to describe. Even on his more criticized albums there’s always a song or two that will grab me.
I own a ton of Van on vinyl… but I’m like most people since ’74 I’ve sort of used a “picked and choose” strategy on my Van albums. I will say, starting in 2002 with Down the Road Van hit a hot streak that rivaled Dylan’s late career resurgence. What’s Wrong With This Picture, Magic Time and Keep It Simple were all great albums. Since then, I’ve gone back to a pick and choose strategy. Even the six albums over the last four years have fit that pattern. I shied away from the more jazz-influenced LPs, Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy but eagerly snapped up Keep Me Singing, Roll With the Punches (LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party) and The Prophet Speaks which was released a mere 11 months ago (LP Review: Van Morrison Returns (Already) With the Bluesy Jazz of ‘The Prophet Speaks’). Admittedly, most of these albums (except Keep Me Singing) were heavy on covers and guest spots.
Recently Van has returned with a new album of all original, Van-written tunes named Three Chords And the Truth. It’s his first album without cover songs since Keep Me Singing. I must admit to being both surprised he was putting out a new album (I don’t know why I was surprised, he’s downright prolific), and worried. The phrase “three chords and the truth” was coined by some old country music singer to describe country music. Bono also plagiarized the line on Rattle and Hum…must be an Irish thing. I was afraid this would be a genre exercise in country music, which could have gone either way. I am pleased to say, this isn’t a country album.
While this album doesn’t rise to the heights of Keep Me Singing (few albums by anybody could), this is another great Van Morrison album. Gone is the blues-rock firebrand of Them. Van’s music is more of a smooth groove. As I often say, Van is a sitting-on-the-deck, after closing time, sipping a glass of something dark and murky kind of music. These are the kind of songs I’ll put on while staring up at the nighttime sky, after everyone else with any sense has slipped off to bed. Some of us night owls just like to stare into the void and contemplate the infinite while riding a nice whiskey buzz.
Van is backed predominantly by his touring band – which try as I may, the internet would not reveal the names of his band members. Van really should put these guys names/instruments on his website… In another stroke of genius, he brings acoustic, jazz guitar whiz Jay Berliner who also played on Astral Weeks to play on this record.He doesn’t play on all of the tracks but when Berliner plays he makes his presence felt. His playing fits the laid back groove of this album perfectly. He and Van’s chemistry is undeniable. I will say right up front, at over an hour and seven minutes, this album is a lot to absorb. And it may be too mellow for a lot our B&V readers. Van’s vocals remain incredibly strong for a man his age and it’s worth the price of admission for me here. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar and Hammond B-3 to move the tracks along.
The album starts off on the right track with the soulful “March Winds In February” where Berliner announces his presence with a great acoustic guitar solo. That song sticks to your brain. Then the album veers into its only misstep – the awful “Fame Will Eat the Soul.” The subject is a dead horse that Van seems to like to beat on almost every album. We get it Van, fame sucks. Well, except for the money and all the chicks. For reasons unclear he has Bill Medley from Righteous Brothers fame duetting with him here. Medley sounds like he’s been gargling fiberglass. It’s as if a drunk uncle at a wedding charged the stage and grabbed the microphone. At the end they’re both singing, “stop, stop, stop” and I couldn’t help but think, yes, please stop.
I almost gave up on the album after that track but I’m glad I didn’t because the next track was one of those great, Van, transcendent turns on “Dark Night of the Soul.” This is maximum Celtic soul. It’s almost an incantation, more prayer than hymn. There are many moments like that to follow. Van’s rewrite of “Auld Lang Syne” entitled “Days Gone By” is wonderful track in the same vein. “I want to drink a cup of kindness with you…” is a great lyric. “Up On Broadway” is perhaps Van’s strongest vocal on the album, amongst a collection of great vocal performances. “Doesn’t Love Conquer All,” a rare positive track lyrically and “If We Wait For Mountains” keep the smooth, laid back groove going.
There are a few tracks that break the Celtic soul mold and they stick out because they’re so different. I love the title track. It has a more R&B feel to it. “Bags Under My Eyes” an on-the-road complaint has a slightly country vibe with its pedal steel. “Early Days” sees Van revisiting the, yes, early days of rock and roll with rollicking piano that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Jerry Lee Lewis record. “Nobody In Charge” is a jazzy-jaunty little track with political lyrics so vague it barely rises to the level of protest. These are nice change of pace tunes to shake up the tempo of the album.
I would have liked this album more if they’d cut a track or two and got it down to under an hour, but like almost everything, I’ll always take more if I can get it. This is an album I would recommend to any Van Morrison fan out there. Van is certainly back on a roll these days. Join me on the patio with a glass of whiskey and some Van Morrison folks, this ride isn’t going to last forever!