Even in his dotage, Van Morrison’s transcendental fantasies never seemed wholly implausible. Van the soulman, Van the visionary, Van the Celtic bard backed with a beat strong enough to propel him into mystic realms (“way up in the heaven,” as he murmured on 1967’s “Astral Weeks”), Morrison’s competing aspirations could sometimes prove infuriating, pompous, or willfully opaque. But this very adaptability kept his work relatively vital even through the ‘90s (skipping over a regrettable stretch of the ‘80s that was even more unkind to lesser lights). More important, the voice was slow to lose steam. Even during 2009’s Astral Weeks revival tour, the finest white R&B guy of the past half century was still on point.
Fans of the old stuff who long ago wrote Morrison off will find their gripes sadly confirmed on Born to Sing: No Plan B, a recession album that’s four years too late. A literal-minded obsession with financial matters pervades the album. “Money doesn’t make you fulfilled,” Morrison notes on the opening track, and on “End of the Rainbow,” we learn there’s no pot of gold to be found: “So much for capitalism, so much for materialism,” Van mumbles. It’s a fair kiss-off to a broken system, but it’s rare to find more lyricism in a Paul Krugman column than a Van Mo track. “If in Money We Trust” offers some dark prophecies of its own, and by the time Morrison’s reached “Educating Archie,” the closing song, he’s given himself over to full-on paranoiac nihilism: “You’re a slave to the capitalist system/Which is ruled by the global elite.” Such observations are all well and good, but how to reconcile them with “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo,” a song about a town with an unusual ratio of Ferraris to humans where the singer has gone to clear his head? The Woodstock fantasy may well have failed Morrison back in 1971—but, you know, why not try Portland?
If the literalism of the lyrics is both belated and tone deaf, diehard fans can at least take solace in Morrison’s work on the alto saxophone, more sensitive than ever, even over the highly processed cheese of the backing band. (Note to aging singer-songwriters: Unless you’re Neil Young, don’t act as sole producer on your own albums.) That voice, meanwhile, still has its moments, including the opening track and “Pagan Heart,” sung in loose imitation of erstwhile collaborator John Lee Hooker. The hardware still works; it’s the software that’s the problem. When a guy as prolific as Morrison finds himself rhyming “singing the blues” with “paying them dues,” it’s maybe time for a record of duets.
In his 2009 book on Morrison, Greil Marcus runs down a list of “dull and tired albums through the 1980s and ‘90s, carrying titles like warning labels—Beautiful Vision, Poetic Champions Compose,” etc., and Born to Sing will prove a fitting entry in this catalogue. Contractually bound to include the word “mystic” wherever possible, Morrison obliges here, and if we’re spared the usual references to Joyce, Eliot, Shaw, Wilde, Blake, Coleridge, and so on, Jean-Paul Sartre does make a brief appearance, if only to excuse the singer’s trip to Monte. Still, not even Sartre can provide solace for a musical palette best reserved for your cable provider’s hold music. Where’s the Van who set a new standard for the sex/religion dyad with “Gloria,” who proved that a puffy and diminutive Belfast boy could sell some of the most convincing R&B the world had ever seen? The likely answer: stalking the late-late shift on stage at some cozy gig off the Vegas strip. What a pity if this is how it should end: not with a bang, but with a soft-yazz whimper.