I was originally supposed to write about the new Van Morrison album, Keep It Simple (which was released in the U.S. on April 1), a few weeks ago, when other deadlines got in the way. Then a funny thing happened: The characteristically modest yet meticulous Simple shot to the No. 10 spot on the Billboard 200, surpassing 1972’s St. Dominic’s Preview (which peaked at No. 15) to become the highest-charting pop album of the Irish singer-songwriter’s five-decade career. Of course, in terms of actual sales, a high-charting album today isn’t what it was then. Nor has Morrison suddenly re-emerged from pop-culture Siberia: His two previous pop albums, 2005’s Magic Time and 2003’s What’s Wrong With This Picture?, entered the Top 200 at No. 25 and No. 32, respectively, while 2006’s Pay the Devil reached No. 7 on the Country chart. Yet what has eluded Morrison in recent years — and what the famously press-skeptical artist has certainly done nothing to court — is a galvanizing, buzz-worthy, late-career “comeback” on the order of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or Neil Diamond. And if Keep It Simple seems unlikely to change that, its success is nevertheless as welcome as it is surprising.
Photo by Mark McCall
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Morrison, who has no time for your shenanigans
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Many of the (mostly positive) reviews thus far for Keep It Simple note that the album is Morrison’s first of entirely new material since the superb Back on Top in 1999. Strictly speaking, that’s true, though the 15-track Down the Road (2002) actually contained more original compositions (14, plus a cover of “Georgia on My Mind”) than either the 10-track Top or the 11-track Simple. Moreover, little if anything about this “new” album will surprise anyone who has been paying attention to Morrison for the past dozen or so years, during which he has shed most of the New Age-y affect that had crept into his work of the late ’80s and early ’90s and taken listeners on a guided tour of his primary musical influences — not just country but jazz (1996’s How Long Has This Been Going On? and Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison), skiffle (2000’s The Skiffle Sessions) and rockabilly (2000’s You Win Again). Those albums have liberally mixed covers with originals, and it’s proof of Morrison’s musical aptitude that one could scarcely tell the difference between the two. As the British bandleader and TV personality Jools Holland wrote in the You Win Again liner notes of the Morrison-penned “No Way Pedro,” it “sits alongside songs by John Lee Hooker, Dave Bartholomew and Otis Blackwell as if it were made at the same time.”
That seamless quality extends to Keep It Simple, where the unknowing listener might easily mistake the opening blues shuffle “How Can a Poor Boy” for an obscurity from the Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf songbooks, while even this critic could swear he once heard Gene Autry lend his voice to the winsome singing-cowboy paean “Song of Home.” Elsewhere on the album, the homage is more direct, as when Morrison tips his hat to Duke Ellington and Bob Russell’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with the teetotaling “Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore,” or makes a playful anagram — “That’s Entrainment” — out of Comden and Green’s “That’s Entertainment.” And because this wouldn’t be a Van Morrison album otherwise, one faintly self-serving cut, “School of Hard Knocks,” positions its singer as the unwitting victim of a corrupt media/music-industry complex. (“They’ve brainwashed the suckers again and perpetrated the myth,” Morrison sings. “Propaganda far and wide.”) Top to bottom, the musicianship is exemplary, with contributions from such Morrison stalwarts as guitarist John Platania (who first played on 1970’s Moondance), bassist David Hayes and backing vocalist Katie Kissoon; the arrangements, in keeping with the album’s titular mantra, are spare, functional, elegant.
Of course, it’s “entrainment” rather than mere “entertainment” that the Morrison faithful come looking for and often find in those long, radio-unfriendly, stream-of-consciousness ballads, dense with personal and literary references, during which Morrison seems to fall into a trance — to go (as the title of his 1979 album put it) into the music. Often, Morrison’s studio albums offer little more than rough drafts of these songs, which are subsequently revised, improvised upon and worked into epic, ingenious medleys out on the road — the case, once upon a time, with “Cyprus Avenue” and, more recently, with the likes of “Burning Ground,” “Little Village” and “Celtic New Year.” So it is not the least of Keep It Simple’saccomplishments that it adds one trancelike classic-in-the-making to the Morrison repertoire. The song is called “Behind the Ritual” and it’s (fittingly) the album closer, starting off with Morrison plucking gently on a ukulele and singing about bygone days of “drinking wine in the alley.” Then it builds, gradually over seven minutes, into a rousing symphony of organ, sax and gospel chorus, as Morrison riffs endlessly on the title lyric before giving up on words altogether and bleating out a memorable verse of “blah”s. Like many of Morrison’s best songs, this one points us toward a destination. But located where, exactly? I can’t say for sure, but I’d wager that you could find it somewhere down the ancient highway, near a town called Paradise, and not far from the viaducts of Van Morrison’s dreams.
VAN MORRISON | Keep It Simple | Lost Highway