Wednesday 18 July 2018

Have I told you lately about Van's genius?

At 72, Van Morrison is still far from his last waltz, as he releases his 37th studio album, 'Roll With The Punches'

Van Morrison... still rocking and rolling at 72
Van Morrison... still rocking and rolling at 72
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Sod Sgt. Pepper. Van Morrison's 1968 album Astral Weeks is a finer album than The Beatles' piece de resistance from 1967. That was The Guardian's assessment in 2008. However contentious that view was, there is a certain sense to labelling Astral Weeks possibly one of the greatest, most seminal, albums of all time. Here Van is, the sacred wanderer, the spiritual seeker, the wise-man full of improvisational transcendence, seeking out some sort of mystic deliverance.

Down the years, many a person listening to Astral Weeks doubtless did so under the illusion that it would unlock the key to this mystic deliverance for themselves.

I am still waiting for the lock to turn.

Be that as it may, listening to Van sing Sweet Thing, Ballerina and Madame George is never less than beautiful, always like you are listening to those songs for the very first time. As Greil Marcus wrote in his masterful 2010 biography When That Rough God Goes Riding: "You put a man next to a microphone, hand him a sheet of words, and soul comes out."

He's the grandmaster. The king. The dark knight of soul. No one comes close to him at times. And other times, he is banal, repeating himself, sounding bored, being a full-on cliche, a sourpuss, a tired curmudgeon. Happily, there are more moments in Van's work when he is closer to the transcendent than to the tired to make buying another CD of Van doing old soul and blues chestnuts worth the effort.

That said, his new release, Roll With The Punches is hardly revelatory fare. With the Belfast Buddha ably assisted with contributions from Jeff Beck, Paul Jones, Georgie Fame, among others, throughout, Roll With The Punches, his 37th studio album features some fine fare, albeit: Van's reinterpretations of everything from Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me to Lightnin' Hopkins's Automobile Blues to Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing's Goin' To Chicago to Sister Rosetta Tharpe's How Far From God, and Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue from T-Bone Walker/Doc Pomus.

I love it, love it, but I have a gripe. As much as I love Van Morrison - and as much as I realise it is heresy punishable by being burned at the stake on a pile of old vinyl copies of Hard Nose The Highway to say anything critical of him - I can't help but thinking: do we really need to listen to Van singing Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue and Bring It On Home To Me for the apparently umpteenth time? (Stormy Monday was on A Night In San Francisco, the live album from 1994 - as was Lonely Avenue - and on Too Long In Exile from 1993; Bring It On Home To Me was on Van's 1974 double live album It's Too Late To Stop Now).

Depending on our mood, most of us would stand out in the rain to hear Van sing these songs again and again. But right this second, I am not so sure.

I'd much rather hear more of Van's new work as a clue to what is going on in his head in his eight decade, as he nears - hopefully not too quickly - his last waltz.

There are five new compositions from the great man here. Transformation, Too Much Trouble and the title track Roll With The Punches are good insights into where Van the Man is at in 2017.

Even though I'm sure it is pretty much the same as it was in 1968 when he issued Astral Weeks, not least when he sang on the title track about being "nothing but a stranger in this world".

I'm pretty sure, too, that 72-year-old Van is still the same as he was in 2005 when he said: "I don't really suit the music business. Or, indeed, any business. I'm incompatible with the way things are done. It's not easy doing what I do. It's not easy being able to fight the fight with these people." Sod the music biz. Keep on fighting, Van.

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