For his 33rd studio album, Van Morrison retains some of the core players from his recent Nashville exploration, Pay the Devil, and channels the familiar, angry-old-man musings on art and public life that have driven his 21st-century output. The result is another mixed bag of tunes from the man now fully embracing the second half of his famous nickname, “Belfast Cowboy.” The sparse, slightly country arrangements on Keep It Simple leave plenty of space for his reedy, Celtic-soul croaking, and fortunately for us, Morrison’s vocals continue to mystify even into his fourth decade as a performer. Keep It Simple does contain a few forgettable, if well played and stirringly sung, rants (“No Thing,” the title track) in addition to some uninspiring odes to Irish transcendence (“Song of Home,” “Soul”), but there plenty of instances where Morrison lands right on target, and his characteristic blend of European folk and American pop soothes like a warm Irish coffee. Riffing on and flipping lyrics and melodies from blues and jazz standards remains his M.O.: “Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore” preaches sobriety in the garb of a midtempo Ray Charles number, and “How Can a Poor Boy” spins a gospel-style yarn of disillusionment. “That’s Entrainment,” with Morrison’s typically thorny lyrics set to a soft ukulele-and-handclap accompaniment, will surely land a spot on the fourth volume of The Best of Van Morrison. The gently rolling vintage of album closer “Behind the Ritual” should be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the song “Little Village” on 2003’s What’s Wrong with This Picture? Recycling chord progressions is something Morrison has been at for years (see “Tupelo Honey” turned into an anti-music business screed on Hymns to the Silence‘s “Why Must I Always Explain?”), as is releasing unsurprising and yet seriously pleasing albums like Keep It Simple.
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