Van Morrison has long expressed his disinterest in chasing trends. He doggedly pursues his own muse, and in recent decades that’s resulted in albums that mostly stick to his trademark blend of jazz, folk, and Celtic soul. Roll with the Punches is an exception to that rule, his most distinctive album since 2006’s country covers collection Pay the Devil. Like on that album, he largely abandons his tried-and-true approach to delve headlong into a roots-music idiom—this time, electric blues and R&B.
Roll with the Punches is a rush of energy and attitude. Throughout, Morrison deeply and viscerally connects with his material—mostly covers and a handful of original songs. He understands that, with the blues, innovation isn’t really the point; it’s all about the feeling, and the album captures the unpretentious energy of a night at the local juke joint. The singer leans into every growl and impassioned wail, and he works with an appropriately ferocious band that includes cameos from Georgie Fame, Jeff Beck, and Chris Farlowe.
Rather than treat the blues as a stuffy, academic genre exercise, Roll with the Punches plays like a party album, sequenced with momentum while slyly underlining the eclecticism of the material. Both the originals and the covers highlight the diversity of expression found within the blues tradition, starting with a couple of Morrison credits: The title track, a laidback and funny song about resilience in the face of adversity, pilfers its riff from “Hoochie Coochie Man,” while “Transformation” incorporates some of Morrison’s mystic soul into a warm sing-along. Other songs unlock new attitudes and flavors, from the jaunty piano and gospel wailing on his rendition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “How Far from God” to the elegant uptown swing of “Too Much Trouble.”
Rather than treat the blues as a stuffy, academic genre exercise, Roll with the Punches plays like a party album.
These performances are winsome not because they’re given new arrangements, but because they’re played with conviction and style. That’s most evident in a medley of “Stormy Monday” and “Lonely Avenue,” two standards that Morrison has recorded before, that begins as a slow blues crawl and builds to a wailing, electrifying finale. That song is followed by “Goin’ to Chicago,” where Morrison and Fame trade warm line readings atop a walking upright bass; the two singers clearly savor their camaraderie and project all the easygoing confidence of the old pros they are.
Roll with the Punches is just over an hour long, and if it’s a rollicking good time from start to finish, that’s because Morrison exudes not just knowledge of this well-worn material, but a passion for it. The arrangements here don’t boast any real surprises, and yet, at 72, Morrison has made an album unlike any other in his catalogue, one that’s unique in its raucous, rootsy vibe and the warmth of its performances. It’s the first Van Morrison album in over a decade that doesn’t just rest on his legacy, but actually expands it.