Latest Record Project: Volume 1
Perhaps no artist was more upset about the pandemic lockdown, at least to the point of railing against it in song, as the ever prolific Van Morrison. And yes, he used the time to generate a ton of new material, indicating that this tongue-in-cheek entitled Latest Record Project: Volume 1, with its 28 tracks, just shy of two hours of music, is just a portion of what’s to come. Reacting to criticism and moving away from the standards of blues and jazz that marked most of his recent efforts, the Belfast Cowboy says, “I’m getting away from the perceived same songs, same albums all the time,” says Morrison. “This guy’s done 500 songs, maybe more, so hello? Why do you keep promoting the same 10? I’m trying to get out of the box.” And as it pertains to this album, “I would never have written this much if we hadn’t been locked in. Normally I’d be travelling, which takes up a lot of time, and this is what was left to do. Sometimes I’m writing on piano, sometimes guitar, sometimes saxophone, and you don’t imagine the song right away. It’s a process of trial and error. You try different chords, rhythms and tempos, before you go: that’s how it’s going to work. And by the time I bring people in, I have something to show them.”
The new material just oozes the animation that comes from working with a backing quartet (piano, organ, bass, drums) and three backing vocalists with whom he has worked often. That means working spontaneous and fast. Now, concerning that comment of trying to get out of the box, this is an unmistakably blues and R&B based Morrison album, it bears none of the experimentation of his ‘70s or ‘80s albums. It’s straightforward, owing to what he claims is writing from a 1950s concept – simple music that lets the lyrics tell the story. He sounds positively youthful on this outing, arguably with a more robust, lower register centered voice with music in the form of Moondance and His Band and Street Choir period, which was just a mere five decades ago.
These are new songs with the unmistakable Morrison imprints such as grousing about the music business (title track, “Double Agent”), lost and found romance (“Tried to Do the Right Thing,” “Love Should Come with a Warning”), an ode to Irish heritage here and there (“Up County Down”), and other perhaps autobiographical rants (“Duper’s Delight,” “It Hurts Me Too”). Yet, what makes this stand apart from most of his work is its contemporary subject matter and increasingly protest aspect of his music which began to appear on his previous album, “Nobody in Charge” from Three Chords and the Truth. To some extent this album is a natural successor to that one which contained almost all new Morrison material, albeit with some different backing musicians and no background singers.
Contemporary fare is found in the rocking “Where Have All The Rebels Gone,” where he bemoans the lack of real independent thought replaced by mere posturing and we can suppose this whole woke culture craze. “Why Are You On Facebook? “is his obvious rant against social media, upon which he comments, “I remember when [Facebook] started,” he says. “There was a guy I know, putting up the message: ‘I’ve just left the restaurant. I’m on my motorcycle. I’m going to the next place. This is the hamburger I made.’ And I thought, what’s the point in this? It is the Andy Warhol thing that everybody should be famous for 15 minutes, carried to the extreme.” The Carl Perkins rockabilly of Dead Beat Saturday Night lists the things we’ve all been going through for the past year: “No life, no gigs, no choice, no voice.” Some are more in the form of observations such as the closing saxophone-led R&B “Jealousy,” dealing with the things people say about you; their reasons for saying it is implied in the title. Another is “Stop Bitching, Do Something” faintly hearkening back to his teenage years with Them, where he rails against apathy.
Others are in the mode of American blues and roots music which he has long purveyed from his beginnings. “The Long Con” is straight ahead blues about a wanted man but is perhaps most centered on the idea of keeping up the fight, speaking to his own persistent nature. “A Few Bars Early” is pure fun, a takeoff on country music, about which Morrison says, . “It seemed like a good concept, to come in a few bars early and relate it to a guy hanging out in a bar,” says Morrison. “Prince Buster’s “Enjoy Yourself” was a big hit when I was young, so I was combining thoughts of that song with hanging out in bars, where you lose all concept of time.”
Many associate Morrison with romantic sentiments as he’s had more than his share of enduring love songs. Here we have the equal parts affection and regret in “Tried to Do the Right Thing” and the jazz-tinged breakup tune “Love Should Come with a Warning.” But, as we saw on his previous album, he does occasionally co-write with Don Black, who provided the lyrics to this one. Morrison approached Don Black after hearing something in his 1969 pop ballad On Days Like These, as sung by Matt Monro for the soundtrack to The Italian Job, which reminded him of his own style. It led to Black writing, paradoxically, the most autobiographical song on the album. “You thought you knew me, but you were wrong,” sings Morrison on “Mistaken Identity.”
One can argue that Morrison is in a late career resurgence since 2016’s Keep Me Singing. This is his seventh album in a five-year period. Instead of slowing down, he is getting even more prolific, claiming to have recorded over 50 songs for this project, delivering 28 here and suggesting another double album to follow. The sounds and the grooves remain similar, based in the Black American music that he loves but the subject matter is becoming increasingly contemporary, even leaning in some cases to the socio-political side. Van is consistent and reinvigorated. While this writer still gives a slight edge to the two with Joey DeFrancesco – You’re Driving Me Crazy and The Prophet Speaks, this expansive project is another strong entry for Van the Man.
- Jim Hynes
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