Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
We need to talk about Van Morrison. Over the past 15 months, while you might not have been looking, the iconic Irish singer has strung together a collection of new albums at a clip that would draw approving nods from even the most prolific Atlanta trap denizens like Future and Young Thug. Three records total; the most recent, Versatile, which just dropped earlier this month. Incredibly, it appears that we haven’t reached the end of this latest spike in production either. Word around the water cooler is that Van plans on dropping yet another, as-yet-untitled new project come April, with a live film called In Concert debuting two months before then.
While Van’s popularity in the UK has held pretty strong — two out of his three most recent releases debuted in the Top 5 on the album charts across the pond and he was even the recipient of a knighthood — it feels as though in America we’ve kind of taken him for granted lately. Album announcements and release dates come and go, and there’s hardly any fuss made when he rolls out a smattering of tour dates here and there in the mostly warmer climates of North America. He’s just kind of…there…and not there at the same time.
That could be chalked up to any number of reasons, chief among them being that 72-year old crooners don’t typically generate the biggest buzz when they elect to drop new projects. But there are other factors at play as well. Such as is the case for many legacy acts, streaming has made the entirety of Van’s oeuvre more available than ever, meaning that casual fans and the mildly curious are more likely to check out his “great” works like Moondance or Astral Weeks than his more recent offerings. It doesn’t help that Van holds a deep aversion to talking with journalists, which might help drum up even a modicum of publicity for his latest creations. Then of course, even if he were to deign to speak with any of us, it’s not like there’s an obvious, easy narrative to build around in the first place. “Great Singer/Songwriter Makes Another Good Album” doesn’t exactly jump off the page.
The irony of his relative anonymity is that Van himself probably relishes in it. 50 years under the microscope is enough to drive anyone not named Mick Jagger into the shadows. There’s a track on his 2017 album Roll With The Punches that lays bare his own feelings about living and creating in the public eye. “Oh fame, they took away all my humanity,” he wails. “You’ll never be the same / Cause everyone’s corrupted by fame.” It’s telling that this is one of the very few instances in a rare, recent interview with The Telegraph that he’ll cop to writing a song about his own experience in life rather than approximating someone else’s.
“A lot of the time I’m writing songs that are nothing to do with me,” he explained. “I might pick up an ambiance about a certain place or a certain time, and that will lead into a song. But my life isn’t my songs. They’re just something that I do in the same way that someone writes a script or a story…That one’s different. That’s what I call a reality song. It would be about my life.”
Whatever the reason for Van’s North American inconspicuousness, to ignore his latest creations is a mistake. I’m not out here arguing that’s he’s been toiling away in secret, patching together another Veedon Fleece under our noses, but the breadth, depth and sonic diversity of his new material is damn impressive. Each project he’s put over the last couple of years carries its own singular vibe and flavor. No two feel or sound the same.
Beginning in 2015 with Duets: Re-Working The Catalog, Van decided to pick through his own, vast discography, plucking out a collection of unheralded gems, and re-recording them with the likes of Mavis Staples, Steve Winwood, Mark Knopfler, and his own daughter Shana. The results were interesting to say the least, and not in the derogatory sense of the word, but rather in what they reveal about which of his own songs Van felt weren’t given their due upon initial release. The duet with ‘60s pop curio P.J. Proby on the smoky, jazzer “Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby” is especially fascinating for obvious reasons.
The following year, he signed to a new label, Caroline, and kicked off his latest spurt of creativity in earnest with Keep Me Singing. 12 of that album’s 13 tracks are Morrison originals through which he summons the same visions of pastoral landscapes and tales of unrequited love that made him a cult-icon to begin with. The mood is for the most part somber, but not melancholy. Not filled with existential despair. To be completely honest, the songs don’t quite have the same bombast of some of his earlier, treasured hits, but there are moments here that feel akin to some of his most thoughtful ‘70s compositions. “Too Late” has the vibe of a discarded deep cut from the 1970 album His Band And The Street Choir for instance.
Through the latter-half of 2017, Van decided to set down his pen for the most part and remind the world where his roots lie. In September, he dropped Roll With The Punches, an hour-long send-up to the electrified post-World War II brand of American blues that so excited him as a young man growing up in Belfast. Re-imagined takes on T-Bone Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sam Cooke mingle with five of his own, newly-written songs. The covers are more instructive than they are revelatory, but the smattering of selections that feature guitar savant Jeff Beck, are patently mind-blowing. Literally no one on earth sounds quite like Beck. Using just his fingers, and with a firm palm pressed at all times to his whammy bar, he’s able to coax beautiful, haunting melodies out of his Stratocaster with frustrating ease. The solo, beckoned by Van himself with a casual “Alright Jeff,” on the mournful “Bring It On Home To Me” is thrilling, so much so that in the middle Van urges him to take it further, a request Beck obliges with volcanic fury.
In December, Van plumbed a different side of his musical lineage, assembling an equally long collection of Tin Pan Alley standards for an album titled Versatile. The name itself seems to suggest his own proclivity this late in life for showing off exactly what he could do. Unlike say Dylan, who’s croaking voice almost necessitates a turn toward this type of material, or Rod Stewart who a few years back made several Brinks trucks worth of cash by husking his way through his mother and father’s favorite music, Van has always taken bits and pieces from this staid canon and melded it into his music. In other words, it doesn’t feel like shtick. Van appears entirely at home pouring out his heart on timeless compositions like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and “Unchained Melody.” Close your eyes and you can almost see him cradling a microphone in his suave, pinstripe suit, and black fedora.
As a singer, I was also delighted to discover that he continues to take traditional word pronunciations as mere suggestions, and more often than not, seeks to find interesting verbal pockets within the instrumentation to fit his voice. Sometimes that means cramming phrases together, like in a hasty, multi-car pile-up, other times it means stretching them out like gooey mozzarella pulled from a slice of piping hot pizza.
I can’t account for what’s driving Van Morrison to put together such a voluminous stockpile of new music in recent years. Maybe he’s finally linked up with the right kind of label that feels totally willing taking whatever it is he’s willing to give them, thrilled with the prospects of sharing it with the masses? Perhaps he’s come to face his own mortality and simply doesn’t want to leave anything out on the field before the game ends? The most likely option — the one Occum’s Razor suggests — is that he simply feels like it. In spite of age, indifference, and current tastes at the forefront of popular culture, Van simply can’t seem to deny that internal muse that pulls him into the recording studio and out on the stage with increasing regularity. In other words, It’s Too Late To Stop Now.