By Scott McLennan
Prickly and polemical tunes are surrounded by some of the most enjoyable music Van Morrison has made in years.
Van Morrison, Latest Record Project: Vol. 1
Van Morrison’s 28-song Latest Record Project: Volume 1 is, at various points, inspired, insipid, and infuriating. There are some great, upbeat rockers; a boatload of bellyaching; trite protests against vague “thems” and “theys” who are robbing us (well, mainly Van) of freedoms, rights, and an earned place at the table of opportunity. Buried in all the static is a pretty decent blues album.
Morrison is pissed off, which means he is pretty fired up. He can’t be accused of sleepwalking through his 42nd album. Morrison’s voice is strong, supple, and engaging. He performs on sax, guitar, keys, and harmonica. He keeps the band playing tight and nimble, much like when he is leading the group live on stage.
This is a guy who is inspired by his own misery, happily preempting his critics with claims that people won’t appreciate his art if it does not conform to their expectations. And, according to Morrison, if it is not your own closed mind that prevents you from truly appreciating his new music, then, it’s the media (controlled by unnamed authoritarian powers) manipulating your tastes.
Challenging expectations is certainly an interesting strategy for an artist to explore, especially coming from someone of Morrison’s stature, who has an extensive catalog and good number of albums and songs that are considered to be classics. But the effort here comes across as loutish, lacking the acidic skill and precision of, say, Bob Dylan confronting his critics with the rapier thrust of “Positively 4th Street.”
Morrison opens the double album with the song “Latest Record Project,” which is an attempt to sound introspective while pleading on behalf of his current work. But this is not an honest assessment of what it’s like to feel imprisoned by the long shadow of earlier masterworks. The song flails in its own self-centeredness; it is as if Morrison is trying to run from the cold hard fact that, no matter what happens, the words Astral Weeks and Moondance will be at the top of his obituary.
Morrison wallows in narcissism further with “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” which basically craps all over newer music, accusing it of lacking soul and fight. So much for listening to others’ latest record projects. But wait, he’s not done. Morrison then uncorks the light-touch ballad “Psychoanalysts’ Ball,” a humorless skewering of those offering and those seeking mental-health care.
Then we get into Morrison’s favorite topic: himself. Morrison wallows in his own self-perceived victimhood on “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” The injustices he is forced to suffer through include such whoppers as having his date to the opera not appreciate the VIP seats he procured. The “woman done me wrong” blues genre is part of a venerable tradition — but Morrison comes of as a nasty SOB.
As if whining and ranting wasn’t a bad enough way to open a record, the ride becomes truly weirder and more unpredictable from here. Songs pivot wildly, veering from really great blues tunes, stuff brimming with heart and soul, to diatribes full of bile and paranoia.
Before releasing this album, Morrison put out a few vitriolic broadsides against pandemic-related restrictions. These weak and cartoonish songs were wisely left out of Latest Record Project: Vol. 1. Still, bitter sentiments run through the songs “The Long Con,” “Big Lie,” “Stop Bitching, Do Something,” “They Own the Media,” and others. For most of us, these tunes will induce eye rolls and grimaces — there is nothing compelling or convincing in his arguments. But if you are of a mind to believe we are being manipulated by nefarious forces, well, you have plenty of anthems here for your next pity party.
Much of this fodder is easy to ignore; they are like Fox News commentaries delivered via a brogue. Still, some of Morrison’s provocations invite legitimate and passionate push back. On “Deadbeat Saturday Night,” Morrison laments his inability to play concerts or go to movies, never once squaring his minor inconveniences against the harsh reality of a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives. Worse, on “Western Man” Morrison embraces an ugly nativism with lyrics suggesting that “the help” is taking over the main house while “western man” sleeps and loses his power and influence.
Morrison builds himself a couple of escape hatches for the songs that might raise hackles. First, there’s “Only a Song,” which makes a “the map is not the territory” argument, Hey, don’t take everything I say seriously because a singer is merely playing with words to get a desirable sound. Morrison also puts in “Mistaken Identity,” a strolling blues that opens with the line, “You thought you knew me, but you were wrong/ There’s more to me than my songs.” We are supposed to buy that the problem is ours, not his.
But, as noted up top, these prickly and polemical numbers are surrounded by some of the most enjoyable music Morrison has made in years.
Morrison is at his most splendidly creative in songs in which he shrugs off the neurotic weight of dark, oppressive forces and embraces the woes of the traditional blues. “Thank God for the Blues” offers full-throated homage to the form, while “Blue Funk” is a sleeker vehicle that manages to take a swipe at the media and current state of affairs without sounding overwrought by wisely letting the music do most of the talking.
On “Love Should Come With a Warning” Morrison takes on the role of victim again, but this time it’s in a cleverly crafted love song in which he’s on the losing end of things. It’s hard to not to be won over to his side — who can’t relate?
The buoyant “Up County Down” is the album’s most joyful offering. Surprisingly, it makes room for some relaxed lines about the wild old days. Yes, it sounds like the Old Van; it is as if he is daring us to take the bait and let our guard down. Who cares? Grab it.
Morrison is also open-hearted on “Breaking the Spell,” an interlude of spiritual awakening that offers hope amid a record that serves up lots of hopelessness.
Latest Record Project: Volume 1 presents an exhausting workout, and not just because of the effort Morrison put in to make this sprawling set. Listeners should prepare to do some sweating — they have their work cut for them.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.