FOR 35 years, Van Morrison has carved a unique musical niche. Though the hit singles have been rare since his early days, his fame has been assured by that very uniqueness and the loyalty of his fan base.
Gone are the days when Mr. Morrison released albums at the clip of three every two years, but the 53-year-old Irish bard is still good for a sumptuous album every other year. Back On Top, his first disc on the Virgin Records label, is no exception.
Fans will get what they have come to expect from the best of Van the Man’s work for the past two decades. That means a 50-50 blend of rhythmic and grooving mid-tempo pieces on the one hand, and gorgeously textured soulful ballads on the other.
The mid-tempo songs exhibit some more musical variety than has sometimes been the case lately. There are plain blues stompers like the album opener, Go Down Geneva, and examples of horn-rich rhythm and blues in Precious Time and Back on Top.
There are also neat stylistic tangents, however, that harken back to some of his earlier work in the folk rock song High Summer and in Russian Roulette, itself reminiscent of the pop-style song New Biography.
As for the ballads, they are simply beautiful showcases of Mr. Morrison’s singularly gifted singing. Philosopher’s Stone, and In the Midnight, which appear early on the album, are gems. Later tracks like the love-lost lament waltz Reminds Me of You and the contemplative, melodic When the Leaves Come Falling Down are true diamonds.
Musical backing is better than has often been the case with recent Van Morrison albums. Players include sax legend Pee Wee Ellis and veteran session player Geraint Watkins on organ. Backing vocalist Brian Kennedy, whose wispy voice was used in useless and annoying parroting of Van Morrison’s lead vocals on recent albums, is put to much better use here with crisp, accurate harmonies. Better still, Van Morrison’s daughter Shana, who did backing vocals for him for much of the 1990s, is nowhere to be heard this time around.
Lyrically, familiar Van Morrison themes are expressed. One is his uneasy relationship with fame, be it in the caustic indictment of those who betray his confidence in New Biography, or in laments of a private personality for his public life in several tracks, Go Down Geneva and Philosopher’s Stone among them.
As well, the spiritual yearning that has been part of Van Morrison’s albums from the outset – and was especially pronounced from 1979’s Into the Mystic to 1991’s Hymns to the Silence – is again a major component in Back on Top. This time, spiritual yearning finds its expression in the context of a melancholia at the passage of time, most notably on the album’s final two cuts Precious Time and Golden Autumn Day.
All in all, Van Morrison joins the Virgin Records artist roster with an album that will delight fans – both those who prefer his rhythm and blues stylings of the ’90s and those who yearned for a return of his soul-baring odes of the ’80s. That is no mean feat but he is, after all, Van the Man.
Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.