Keep It Simple
Van Morrison gets back to basics, writes Tom McShane
In 2005, Van Morrison released an album entitled Magic Time. It was an eclectic collection of songs that touched base with styles and themes from his greatest works and though a mixed bag, it delivered some of his most beautifully moving compositions in quite some time.
Hot on its heels came Pay The Devil, a fine album of country covers that included a number of new songs from the Man himself. These records represented a resurgent, reinvigorated Van Morrison, finally emerging from his disappointingly inconsistent 90s period.
Since then, Morrison fans have had to make do with a string of 'best of' collections and back catalogue reissues. Now, at long last, comes Keep It Simple. The question is, does Morrison’s latest album deliver on the promise of recent years?
As Magic Time seemed to explore Morrison’s own musical mythology, so Keep It Simple harks back to the artists that informed his musical development, namely Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly et al.
Keep It Simple, as the name perhaps suggests, has a striped back feel. The arrangements are far from bare-bones, but gone are the horn sections and the glossy production many listeners will be familiar with. There is a rawness, an edge to these tracks that is certainly in the spirit of Morrison’s heroes.
Don’t be fooled by the back to basics approach, however. This album is no lazy, twelve-bar blues bore-fest. R&B, gospel, folk and soul are blended and fused here. This is Morrison through and through, and the intellect behind the songs is as keen as ever.
The album begins with the smoky shuffle of 'How Can A Poor Boy?'. Morrison tells us of frustration, of a message misunderstood or ignored. The imagery is vibrant and the irony is thick. He sings 'Tell me what evil lurks in the hearts of men?', conjuring The Shadow and the golden age of radio, and for a moment the listener is transported, not for the only time on this record, to another era.
Morrison quickly shifts musical gear with the punchy 'School of Hard Knocks', and the prevailing mood of the record becomes clear. He’s not expressing a sense of wonder - there are no wistful laments to innocence lost. This is gritty and real and rooted in the here and now. These are songs of experience.
Once a seeker, Morrison now declares that there are 'No answers, only silence. Nothing looks like it’s meant to be'. This delicious pessimism runs like a fissure through the record. When on 'No Thing' Morrison muses, 'Only a fool would ever think that things could ever be the same', the thought occurs that he could easily be singing of his younger self.
At the very centre of this record are two remarkable songs. From the first moments of yearning, mournful guitar it is clear that 'Lover Come Back' is something special. It’s a familiar tale, a story of two lovers separated by land and sea, but when Morrison sings, you believe every word. The intensity builds and builds as layers of sound are added - the steel guitar, the swirling organ, the transcendent backing vocals. Yet the rawness and emotional authenticity remain intact throughout.
The title track follows and the contrast between the two pieces could hardly be more stark. Morrison plays ukulele (yes, really) accompanied only by an accordion, guitar, bass and drums. Even before you hear him sing the lines 'Illusions and pipe dreams on the one hand – And straight reality is always cold', you know this is the album’s defining moment.
During a recent interview with the BBC, Morrison said that with Keep It Simple he wanted to address the media myths that have been built up around him and criticised those who fail to make a distinction between Van the man, and Van Morrison the artist. At this early stage, it's difficult to say whether or not he has achieved this aim.
The persona he presents through song is certainly an intriguing one and, as with all the great songwriters, it’s filled with rich, fascinating contradictions. This album may not contain all of the answers, but there's no doubting that after four decades and over thirty albums, Morrison is again making music of the highest calibre. With Keep It Simple he has confirmed, as his 1999 album perhaps prematurely claimed, that he is most certainly back on top.