Both of Van Morrison’s 2017 albums, Roll with the Punches and its follow-up, Versatile, find the legendary soul conjurer departing from his tried-and-true, alchemic blend of earthy R&B and far-out mysticism, instead focusing on the roots music traditions he was raised on. But that’s where the similarities end: Roll with the Punches is a raucous set of electric blues songs, while Versatile is a jaunt through the Great American Songbook, supported by a laidback swing band. Sadly, where the former album finds Morrison sounding more invigorated than he has in years, the latter is rote and low-energy.
Many artists have used nightclub standards as catalysts for flights of creative imagination and interpretation. And standards have been part of Morrison’s set lists for decades. The problem is simply that Morrison is content to play these songs as easy-listening, supper-club fare, never digging into them for nuance or investing them with new meaning. A notoriously inconsistent performer, Morrison actually sounded fired up on Roll with the Punches, so statistically speaking, it was probably inevitable that he’d be subdued here.
The closest thing to a surprise on Versatile is the presence of a few original compositions, written in the style of these familiar standards and mostly blending in with the scenery. “Broken Record” makes the biggest impact, but not for the right reasons: a glib little throwaway that opens the album, the track finds Morrison repeating the title phrase over and over again in imitation of the well-worn cliché. On the other hand, “Only a Dream,” a rollicking soul song Morrison wrote for Solomon Burke and recorded for 2002’s Down the Road, is disassembled and put back together again as a jittery, syncopated jazz tune. The singer sounds more engaged with it than he does with any of the old chestnuts that make up the rest of Versatile.
These songs have endured as standards for a reason, and while it’s dispiriting to hear Morrison sing them so half-heartedly, the melodies still captivate and the words are still wonderfully direct. One of the album’s most appealing moments comes when the singer steps aside altogether, letting the orchestra take a graceful, easy-going stroll on a tune called “Skye Boat Song”—complete with some spirited solos from several of the horn players. Following the jolt of electricity that is Roll with the Punches, though, it’s disappointing to hear one of the all-time great vocalists turn in such mundane performances.