No rock singer to emerge in the 1960s displayed more intensity, depth and subtlety than Van Morrison. From his formative years with Them through his early solo work, he poured all of himself into a song, whether it was the orgasmic “Gloria”, the terrifying “T.B. Sheets”, or the all-consuming (and aptly titled) “I Can Only Give You Everything”. If anything, as Morrison’s music matured and evolved, lowering the volume meant raising the emotional ante, as he stretched his artistry into the transcendence of Astral Weeks and Moondance.
It’s worth recalling all this ancient history because somewhere along the way, Van’s attitude toward both his art and his audience changed significantly. It seemed that an artist who had previously given his all was determined to transform himself into the Sphinx of popular music — inscrutable, impenetrable, unapproachable. Rejecting the role of avatar, he seemed to become a crank. On the rare occasions he granted interviews (the one time we visited, I felt I’d never encountered anyone who seemed less comfortable in his own skin), he insisted there was little relation between his life and his work, that those who thought they knew something about him (his values, his beliefs) from listening to him were woefully misguided, that as a singer of songs he was just doing a job. And not a job that seemed to give him any particular enjoyment.
Thus, it’s both a surprise and something of a paradox that his new album — predominantly a covers collection of country hits from his adolescent years — is his most consistently compelling album since at least the mid-’80s.
A surprise because Morrison sounds far more invested in “What Am I Living For” (the Chuck Willis classic later given a country spin by Conway Twitty), “Back Street Affair” (a Hank Thompson honky-tonker) and “Big Blue Diamonds” (recorded by artists ranging from Ernest Tubb to Sam the Sham to Mel Street) than he has with much of his own material in recent years.
And a paradox because the connections between artist, art and audience in country music are at the opposite extreme from the arms-length position Morrison has maintained in recent decades. No form of popular music depends more on at least the illusion of emotional transparency than country. The compact between artist and audience is that the singer is singing truths forged from his own life and shared by his listeners. Country music demands that you believe that Hank Williams was so lonesome he could cry, that Johnny Cash fell into a burning ring of fire, that Patsy Cline has fallen to pieces. (And that Gretchen Wilson is a redneck woman and Toby Keith is as big a blowhard as he proclaims himself to be.) If you believe the singer, you believe the song.
Thus, part of what’s fascinating about this collection is how well it holds together as a Van Morrison album — and as a testament to his interpretive artistry — despite a grab-bag selection of material that extends well beyond the country charts of the 1960s (to encompass the likes of Louis Armstrong and Big Joe Turner). Though Morrison has more often tapped into the bluesier and R&B side of the rock ‘n’ roll equation, from an ocean’s remove there really wasn’t that much of a categorical distinction between the music black artists made on the chitlin’ circuit and the music whites made in the country roadhouses. It was all part of an exotic Americana, a romance with the mythic south.
If this isn’t the first Van Morrison album to suggest an affinity with country music (which certainly provided an influence on 1971′s pastoral Tupelo Honey, and later inspired an uneasy partnership with Linda Gail Lewis, sister of Jerry Lee), it’s the first to frame the arrangements so consistently with fiddle, steel guitar and Floyd Cramer-ish piano (from the great Geraint Watkins). Yet one never has the sense that Morrison is attempting a revivalist exercise, that he’s trying to mimic Patsy Cline on “Half As Much” or George Jones on “Things Have Gone To Pieces”. Instead, he’s getting inside those songs in his own way, just as those artists did, phrasing in a manner that seems as natural to his own style.
Perhaps the key to the album is the most familiar number, Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Whatever it owes to the influence of Williams’ original, the interpretation could be heard as a companion piece to Ray Charles’ breakthrough rendition of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, which showed how a country song could be pure soul. Similarly, the album-opening “There Stands The Glass” reminds little of Webb Pierce’s original and even less of Ted Hawkins’ dramatic recasting. The rhythmic edge Morrison adds by clipping his syllables on the song’s bridge makes the listener hear the very familiar lyric with fresh ears.
Though most of the originals predate Morrison’s songwriting and recording career, the closing rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again” takes the project into a whole different dimension. Rather than an influence, Crowell is Morrison’s contemporary; if anything, it’s possible that Van influenced Rodney, given that Crowell is 5 years younger. The musical territory of Morrison’s arrangement has more in common with Astral Weeks and “Into The Mystic” than with the sound of the country hits heard on 1960s radio.
If this is a one-off rather than a career turn (following Morrison’s forays into skiffle, blues and supper-club crooning in recent years), here’s hoping the investment and conviction he brings to the best of these performances can be transferred to his own material. Of the three songs he wrote here, “Playhouse” and the title cut could pass as recyclings from the public domain (with the latter again turning into a rant about the plight of the troubadour, who would rather “settle down” than be “roamin’ around”), while “This Has Got To Stop” is just strange.
But to hear a great singer at the peak of his powers tackle great material such as “What Am I Living For” offers a reminder that when Morrison is on top of his game, few are better. “Hey, that was worth it!” remarks producer Morrison (one assumes) at the end of that track. You bet it was.