Saturday 16 December 2017

Van Morrisson finds clarity as he goes in search of 'Memory Lane'

On his new album Keep Me Singing, Van Morrison goes in search of Memory Lane and sings how 'we need each other more than ever to lean on'

Van Morrison pictured with Michelle Rocca
Van Morrison pictured with Michelle Rocca
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Two years ago Van Morrison was celebrated in an enchanted evening of words and music at London's Lyric Theatre. He introduced Foreign Window thus: "This was partly based on a documentary about Lord Byron. He said, 'I have learned to love despair'. I wish I could."

Give Van's new album Keep Me Singing a few listens and you will feel that the 71-year-old from Hyndford Street in Belfast hasn't yet learned to love despair - or a version of it, closer to melancholia - but he seems, however, to have learned to deal with it. And his place in the whole existential scheme of things.

Memory Lane is one of Van's finest - and most moving - songs in quite some time. "I stop a while and take in the scene. I stop a while and ask a stranger: 'Is this the place that was once called Memory Lane?"

The sense of resignation, even sadness, in his voice, in his words, sometimes almost whispering, drags the listener in deep. "I don't know where I am or what I'm after," he sings for the rest of the planet. This is more than Van Morrison's legendary otherness.

You can imagine Van standing there somewhere in the North of Ireland, his coat wrapped around to him to protect him from the cold, searching for some long-lost part of his past.

And, as he sings, "And now the leaves are falling and the nights keep getting shorter. . ." you also imagine that Van in some senses of the word is singing about the autumn of his own life, where the nights - the dark nights of the soul, most probably, knowing Van as we do - get shorter with the advancing years.

With Keep Me Singing, Van's first batch of original songs since 2012's Born to Sing: No Plan B, Van has become the esoteric existential soul-man more than ever.

On the haunting In Tiburon, he is singing that "the fog is lifting," before adding with a bona fide rapture in his voice, "We need each other more than ever to lean on."

This isn't the curmudgeonly, uncommunicative, self-absorbed Van of legend - what Van would call the "propaganda".

Practically anyone else singing the words, "We need each other more than ever to lean on" would make them sound like a sub-Paul Young cheese-fest. Van makes the words zing to the heavens like it was Lord Byron or William Blake who wrote them for him alone to sing.

At the aforementioned Van celebration in London in 2014, Edna O'Brien read Madame George ('And the love that loves to love. . .') and then told the audience that she believed he was "in the business of making magic."

If, like me, you listen to Van (and Messrs. Dylan, Cohen, Cave et al) in the sometimes vain hope of hearing some great philosophical truth by which to live your life, then Keep Me Singing has more than its share. Try "Don't let the green grass fool you, look beyond the hill" or "Crying in the rain/Start all over again."

The musical style of the album is mostly jazz in its improvisation spirit. As Van told BBC Radio Ulster's Ralph McLean in an extraordinary two-hour interview recently: "I'm not saying I'm playing jazz all the time but that is the approach."

That said, Going Down To Bangor is a rollicking blues romp that is possibly the distant cousin of Goin' Down To Monte Carlo from Van's Born To Sing album.

And the swamp blues shuffle of The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword is Van invoking the spirit of his late pal, John Lee Hooker, when he sings: "They are going to get burnt because they are playing with fire/ They are going to get caught because someone is a liar." On Every Time I See a River, Van is announcing: "No feeling of isolation here. I guess I must be on the right track." I guess he must, only seven decades after he first set out in search of it.

Better late than never. Too late to stop now, Van.

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