31 May 2005

Tradition And The Individual Talent

      Van Morrison will be sixty later this year, a somewhat surprising fact given that The Man-- a moniker given to him by Robbie Robertson during The Last Waltz concert lo those many moons ago-- has continued to produce albums with astonishing regularity.   It has become old hat, though, for critics and listeners to sigh that a new Morrison album will never match up to his early classics like Astral Weeks and Moondance and Into the Music.   Every now and again, over the past twenty-plus years, a new album seems to make people prick up their ears, the Old Fart seeming to sound again like his former self, but the album fades into the larger oeuvre that is Morrison's canon and becomes just another Van record, one of the nearly forty solo albums produced over a career of about as many years.   That Morrison's oeuvre is broad hardly seems to warrant mention: from Irish traditionals to twelve-bar blues, from light jazz to country, from New Agey instumentals to deep and dirty funk, he, like his musical forefather Ray Charles, seems to subsume other genres into another genre entirely, one that is his and his alone.   His versatility is his trademark, so much so that one almost fails to notice how much territory he covers at any given time, especially given that in recent years Morrison has been making music that is defiantly anti-innovation.   It's as if he has decided he has nothing to learn from the present, and he's been learning more and more from the past, digging particularly in recent years into the music of the past to learn from it.   Picture, if you dare, the Belfast Cowboy covering Eminem's "Ass Like That."   It's an absurdity not even the snarkiest nihilist could suffer.

      But even if Morrison can seem staid, he still has a few surprises up his sleeve after all these years, and one of those surprises on Morrison's latest album Magic Time comes right at its end, when, after "Carry On Regardless" has found its way through its coda, The Man -- wait for it-- yodels.   He then laughs, and chuckles that he was "having too much fun," a sentiment one hardly expects a crank like Van to admit.   But Morrison yodelling is much like Leonard Cohen reaching high C, and almost as absurd as that atrocious concept of him singing Eminem.   It's a strangely comic ending to an album that otherwise seems typical Van, with so many of the songs seeming to fit into that very personal oeuvre of his, and the lyrics so often recalling-- to the point of plagiarism-- previous songs.   Once again, the lyrics are the album's weak link, though they are at least not as patently bad as some of those that appeared on The Healing Game.   It's hard to believe that the same man that could ask, almost forty years ago, if he "could venture in the slipstream, / between the viaducts of your dreams" would now settle for mediocre lyrics like "You gotta fight everyday to keep mediocrity at bay."   One hopes for better, especially from a man capable, at least in the past, of lyrics as evocative as those of Dylan or Cohen.   Or, perhaps, as he intoned on "Songwriter" on the Days Like This album, ten years ago, he has cleaned up his diction and discovered he has nothing else to say.   Shame, that, especially when the feeling one gets as a result is a sense of a man spinning his wheels.

      But if Van the lyricist is caught in a rut, Van the singer and arranger is as strong as ever, his voice on this album as fine as it has ever been, majestically saxophonic and still one of the few wonders of modern music.   It's an old saw that Morrison could read the telephone book and make it seem powerful, but it's no less true for being an old saw: the man has got pipes, and he continues to have the best sense of phrasing since Brother Ray and Aretha Franklin.   In fact, it's clear at certain points on the album how much he's adapting the styles of Mr. Charles and Frank Sinatra, covering Sinatra's "This Love of Mine," and inflecting the subversively-bucolic "The Lion This Time" with more than a few suggestions of Charles' version of "I Can't Stop Loving You."    And on songs like "Evening Train" and "Carry On Regardless," his voice jumps and jaunts with a frisky acrobaticity that's impressive without being flamboyant.   Whatever else, Morrison still possesses something most popular musicians never have, a genuine sense of gravitas that helps to make those attempts at soaring seem so much more effective.   When he reaches for those romantic moments-- as he does on "Celtic New Year" and the album's title track-- his modulations are as crisp as kisses in winter, and only the stoniest of listeners will not perceive their beauty.   In fact, "Celtic New Year," for its stodgy title and lyrics, is also the album's strongest song, largely because it's rendered as effectively as any of the best Van Morrison song-seductions, with Van proving yet again that he knows more about repetition than Kierkegaard ever imagined, with Paddy Moloney (of The Chieftains) raising the stakes with lovely whistle work in the background.

      Magic Time, more even than most of Morrison's recent efforts, is a textured album, and in this way it is Morrison's most lush album since 1990's magnificent Enlightenment.   (Trust me on this one: listen to either this album or Enlightenment on a loud volume to appreciate the subtleties.)   And there are lots of grooves here, even if none of them will make radio play in North America, with "Gypsy In My Soul" and "Stranded" working especially well, the former especially due to the late Foggy Lyttle's guitar work.   "Just Like Greta" works better, too, than one might expect, given its trite lines about wanting to be alone: once Van gathers full-steam, the song proves its value, especially as the Wired Strings are left to do their work.   The irony is that as much as this album has a grumbly side to it (i.e., Van bitching, yet again, about being him), this is a remarkably affirmative album, and as embracing and rollicking as anything he has done in the better part of a decade.   The best songs on the album-- "Celtic New Year," "Gypsy In My Soul," "The Lion This Time," and (surprisingly enough) the cantankerous "They Sold Me Out"-- are probably going to be minor classics in the same ways that "Someone Like You," "Have I Told You Lately" and "Real Real Gone" have already become, and I can already imagine Rod Stewart co-opting "Magic Time" for a desperate single a few years from now.  

      In writing this entry, I'm reminded all too well why with certain artists (poets, musicians, whatever), we attend upon their new releases as documents the value of which we'll not be able to judge accurately for some time.   This is one of those albums, faulty as it may sometimes seem, whose virtues will probably be discovered with time and rediscovery.   It is, however, an album that has, if you'll pardon the mixing of the metaphors, gold in them thar hills.   What it lacks in genius it finds in traditional inspiration, and perhaps it is a testament to Morrison's individual talent that he has created yet another album that will likely only find its true audience with years and probably decades.   They said that about Astral Weeks, too, Morrison's album that is still regularly held up with (and often above) any albums by Bob Dylan and the Beatles as one of the best rock albums of all time, though its proximity to rock is roughly that of a sea anemone to a porn film.   This, however, is a wonderful and remarkably satisfying album, more to be understood when we grasp better the elusive beauty that comes from a truly individual talent studying tradition-- and having fun with it.   Yodel-ay-he-hoo.

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