Incredibly, Van Morrison is 60 years old. Van the Man is now an old man, certainly old enough to kick back and enjoy the Avalon sunset if he so chooses. But don’t let him in on that secret. Most rock stars Van’s age, content to play the nostalgia game if they still play the game at all, criss-cross the world on their Oldies tours. In contrast, during the past three years Van Morrison has quietly released three new albums of original material that are some of the best of his monumental career. It is suspiciously sprightly behavior for a man who is supposed to be resting on his laurels.
The young Van the Man, of course, was a hard act to follow. Outside of the unassailable Beatles catalogue, there may not be a stronger eight-album run than the one Van unleashed with 1968’s Astral Weeks and concluded with 1974’s Veedon Fleece. During those years Morrison served up a heady fusion of deeply personal and frequently mystical songwriting, folk, R&B and Celtic musical influences, and the most electrifyingly soulful voice of the rock ‘n roll era. Coming in to his prime at the onset of the age of FM rock radio, Morrison was the perfect album-oriented artist. His best-known songs from that period– “Moondance,” “Caravan,” “Domino,” “Blue Money,” “Tupelo Honey,” “Wild Night,” “Jackie Wilson Said” – are the Holy Grail of extended soul workouts, featuring the most sublime use of strings and horns to ever appear in rock music, and a voice that was almost feral in its intensity.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than on “Listen to the Lion,” an impossibly idiosyncratic track from Van’s 1972 album St. Dominic’s Preview. For more than eleven minutes Van wrestles his lyrics like a dog worrying a bone, repeating the same phrases over and over in an incantatory prayer; whispering, moaning, cajoling, pleading, and ultimately breaking free of language altogether, soaring off into a scatting, stuttering frenzy, and finally roaring like the lion of the title before settling down again and morphing back to his normal, irascible self. I know people who hate the song, and who find it annoyingly self-indulgent. But for my blue money it is the quintessential Van Morrison moment, the most thrilling and thrillingly strange soul music, in all senses of the term, ever recorded. It is the sound of a man casting off all earthly bounds and battering down the gates of heaven.
It is also evidence of why Van Morrison, for all his undeniable greatness, has never fully received the honor he deserves. The Man’s willful obstinacy and refusal to conform to commercial trends is legendary, and at the peak of his popularity he took a left turn into mysticism, poetry, and the power of childhood memory, and never looked back. There were many high points in the fifteen or so albums he released during the 1980s and 1990s, a few low points, and a lot of head-scratching weirdness – odes to theosophy, tributes to skiffle bands and blues singer Mose Allison, duets with rockabilly artist Linda Gail Davis, heartfelt hymns of praise to John Donne, musical settings of poems by William Blake, and, at one point, quirky literary R&B workouts that included lines such as, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge/Baby?” Baby probably had not, and by evidence of album sales, neither had many other people.
So it may be somewhat understandable if the last three albums – Down the Road, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, and Magic Time – have been met with polite indifference. So let me attempt to lift the lethargy. These three albums rank with the best music Van Morrison has ever created. And they deliberately hearken back to, and frequently recapture, the feral energy of the great early albums.
On Magic Time, his latest album, the comparisons are deliberate and direct. “Celtic New Year” is a simmering ballad that favorably compares to “Tupelo Honey” in its slow burn, and that finds Van scatting off into the kind of ecstatic epiphany that has always marked his finest work. “Evening Train” is equal parts John Lee Hooker and Irish soul, raw and insistent, driven by a dirty baritone sax that recalls the great R&B sides Van cut with his seminal band Them. And thirty-three years after the original roar, a song called “The Lion This Time” finds Van wondering if the king of beasts still holds any terror. “The lion this time,” he sings, “He’s in the circus in a cage.” Don’t believe it. Behind a deceptively lovely string arrangement, Van finds the ancient growl intact, gradually building his vocal throughout the song until he is roaring down those who would have him go gentle into that good night. Van understands all to well that old age should burn and rave at close of day.
It is further evidence, if any is needed, of what Van Morrison has always been, and of what he refuses to become. Don’t be fooled by the lion this time. You expect to encounter a tired legend, a once-mighty king becalmed and tamed by the miles and years. You find instead an echo of a full-throated roar hanging in the air, the telltale signs of a bloody struggle, and an empty cage. The lion in winter is on the loose.