A Life Well Lived—& Sung
A remarkable thing—I was going to use the word “the,” but it would be exceedingly limiting—about Van Morrison is that the man has been making music since 1964. There aren’t many about whom the same can be said, particularly not if you consider that, say, the Rolling Stones have been making music for a long, long time, but there have been additions and deletions to the lineup over the years, and Van Morrison is, well, Van Morrison.
What’s all the more unusual about this is the fact that Van Morrison has really never had much in the way of hits. Sure, we all love “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” but then for those who aren’t partisans, the recognizable tunes are few and far between. What’s all the more astounding about this is that Keep It Simple is his 35th disc. Thirty-fifth. How many performers of any era or genre can say that?
How many performers have you heard pissing and moaning about the possibility of getting recording contracts or of keeping them? Probably at least 35. Yet somehow, Morrison has continued on. Has he ever sold out an arena? Has he ever had the opportunity to kick back and not work? Has he ever done anything but exhibit a dedication to his art and his craft? I think that the word “No” would fit for all of those.
One looks for an analogy, for something to put Morrison into context. While I think, initially, of Ray Davies, who recently released his second non-Kinks disc, that’s not exactly right, as Davies has essentially been making Kinks discs for nearly ever (not that I mind, mind you). Perhaps a better, or closer, analog would be Neil Young, who has similar longevity and vocal idiosyncratic manner. These are two singers for whom one must acquire a taste. And it is this, perhaps, which helps account for the longevity of the careers of both men: Those who buy and support their music are people who have the level of commitment that is, perhaps, in inverse relation to their overall numbers. They are not people who will be swayed by the Next Big Thing.
Like Neil Young, Van Morrison has, throughout his career, explored various types of music. He has the voice he was born with and developed, but he also has the freedom to choose the genres that he will explore musically. (Presumably there is no one at the record company who imagines that there will be a breakout “hit.” Not that I think they’d mind one; I just speculate that they anticipate the Morrison partisans to continue doing what they’ve been doing for as many of the more than 40 years that they’ve been involved.) In this case, Morrison is in the walking blues, gospel-tinged audio arena, with the Hammond organ and harmonica, the pickin’ and soulful background chanteuses behind his signature vocal styling.
Morrison wrote the 11 songs on this disc. And I can’t help but think that there is more than a bit of autobiographical content to them, such that taking the titles of the first half dozen form a story of a life lived: “How Can A Poor Boy,” “School of Hard Knocks,” “That’s Entertainment,” “Don’t Go To Nightclubs Anymore,” “Lover Come Back,” “Keep It Simple.” In some regards, this could be the soundtrack to a movie about the life of a mature singer-songwriter. And given that the individual is Van Morrison, that’s not a criticism in the least bit.
MySpace: Van Morrison.