I am, as you might know, a certifiable Van Morrison fanatic. Back on Top is one of the dozen-or-so albums in my collection I couldn’t live without. I’ve got the live Van albums that blur together. I’ve got the stuff from the 80s that just isn’t very good. I’ve got the country album, Pay the Devil, although I’ve only played it twice. But I’ve also got Astral Weeks and Tupelo Honey and Wavelength and Too Long in Exile and Moondance, as any intelligent person should, the stuff for which Van will be remembered years from now.
The last couple of weeks I have been living with Van’s new album, Born to Sing: No Plan B. I’ve had it in the car and I’ve kept repeating it, which is the way to insinuate an album into your life, a little at a time, over and over. It’s got that trademark Morrison feel, the familiar sound he’s had for the last decade or so, with more jazz touches than we’ve heard from him recently. (Several of the tracks feature swingin’ trombone solos, which is not just a jazz thing but also a throwback thing, and gives them an old-fashioned sound.) From time to time, a song will settle into an easy groove that feels as natural as breathing, the musicians thinking as one. I like it more than his last studio album, Keep It Simple.
I recommend, however, that if you listen to the lyrics, you listen for the sound of them rather than what they say. Van’s tendency to plow the same ground has become tedious. How many songs on the average late-period Morrison record find him bitching about being sold out, ripped off, or otherwise taken advantage of, with the corresponding need to get away from all the scammers to find peace? I count at least four of them on Born to Sing. A couple of others mix in larger concerns, and not always gracefully. “Educating Archie,” a diatribe against people lulled by the media (another favorite Morrison target) into giving up their rights, begins with the words, “You’re a slave to the capitalist system / Which is ruled by the global elite.” On the scale of poetry, that is no “Sweet Thing” (“We shall walk and talk in gardens misty wet with rain / And I will never never never grow so old again”).
The most problematical song on the album is “If in Money We Trust.” If you listen only to the band and the sound of Van’s voice, it’s a hypnotizing groove that runs eight minutes and could run eight more. But the content of the words—short, mantra-like phrases telling how we’ve replaced God with filthy lucre—eventually becomes strident. And ironic, too. Van Morrison’s a guy who spent several years making war on the Internet, going after anybody who dared post anything he considered to be his intellectual property, and even warning those of us he feared might be tempted. A few years back, after a Morrison-themed post—which didn’t contain an mp3, YouTube video, or snippet of lyrics—I got an from Web Sheriff thanking me for my interest in Van but also reminding me, in creepy, Big-Brother-is-watching-you fashion, that Van’s intellectual property was his and his alone. So his protestations about how evil money is tend to ring hollow with me. Although he’s come around on the value of Internet promotion, for a long time he locked down his intellectual property like Hetty Green. Money doesn’t matter? Really?
Don’t misunderstand my point. Born to Sing: No Plan B is the most enjoyable Van Morrison album in years—as music. As a manifesto of what’s important to its creator, it’s not especially pleasant at all.