In the world of rock'n'roll, as in the world of sports, a performer is often considered over the hill at an age when some people are in graduate school. Since the 1950s, pop music has celebrated the young and ephemeral; maturity, longevity, and ties to traditions have all become anathema to restless insouciance and a watchful eye out for the newest, most outrageous thing.
The hegemony of this cult of the cutting edge helps explain the relative obscurity of Van Morrison, the Irish pop singer. Morrison turned 50 last year, which in the world of MTV makes him yesterday's news. This is unfortunate, because in the last few years Morrison has released the best music of his career -- a body of work that provides a rich spiritual counterpoint to grunge's anger and rap's prurience.
Morrison himself is partly to blame for his disappearing act. After 25 years of writing and performing songs that quickly became rock'n'roll classics -- "Gloria," "Moondance," and "Brown-Eyed Girl," to name a few -- the singer went into a tailspin in the 1980s. His music became insipid, and he seemed debilitated by his legendary stage fright and hostility to the press -- attributes that make it difficult to win fans and create any kind of buzz. In 1991, however, he renewed himself with the release of Hymns to the Silence, a double CD.
Morrison was raised in Protestant Belfast, and his father was a fanatical collector of American records. While his neighbors were humming to Rosemary Clooney, Van was taking in Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, and Woody Guthrie, as well as gospel and hymns from the Church of England. Hymns is a paean to these myriad musical influences; it expertly navigates jazz, hymns, rhythm and blues, and pop in a celebration of the music of what Morrison romantically refers to as "the days before rock'n'roll. "
After the release of Hymns, Morrison found himself again a critical, if not commercial, darling, and he has since put out several top-notch records. The best of them is the stunning live performance A Night in San Francisco, where he rises to remarkable heights -- most notably when he bleeds his pastoral meditation "In the Garden" into Sam Cooke's "You Send Me."
Morrison is a Christian, but his faith is grounded in what can only be described as a kind of New Age Celtic mysticism. According to the unauthorized biography It's Too Late to Stop Now, Morrison experienced a feeling of "spiritual ecstasy" when he was three and heard the gospel great Mahalia Jackson on the record player. "It forged an indelible link in his mind between music and a sense of wonder," writes author Steve Turner.
For Morrison, music is an inseparable part of the spirituality of his life and history -- particularly the Ireland of his youth. He often recalls the postwar Belfast of his childhood as a kind of Eden filled with magical evenings spent with the muses of jazz and poetry and literature. Like Mahalia Jackson's voice, these provided rapturous experiences, and Morrison's lyrics are filled with references to Hyndford Street, where he grew up, and quotes from W.B. Yeats, John Donne, and William Blake.
Of course, faith does not guarantee memorable music. What does is sound. This seems obvious, but the dexterity of the musicians who back Morrison is reminiscent of a musical professionalism rock'n'roll turned its back on when performers began writing, playing, and singing their own work. Like the great big-band leaders, Morrison fronts only first-rate backing players. Interestingly enough, the feeling created by listening to such competence is joy, an emotion that seems in short supply in rock. Joy, and a renewed appreciation of America's pre-rock popular music forms -- blues, jazz, folk, and ballads -- as popular art suffused with an affirmative and redemptive spirituality.
While Morrison has grown accustomed to defying pop fads, his latest release really cuts the rope to the charts: It's a swing album. How Long Has This Been Going On (released by the jazz label Verve) is a compendium of jazz classics and reworkings of Morrison's songs. The band, which includes saxohonist Pee Wee Ellis, covers numbers originally performed by Lester Young, Louis Jordan, Mose Allison, and Cannonball Adderley, as well as classic ballads like the Gershwin tune of the album's title.
Morrison's voice, a rough, gravelly growl with little range, is a problematic instrument; like Bob Dylan, he often has trouble filling the clever melodies he devises. (This is probably why he is so fond of spoken- word meditations.) However, on How Long, like his other albums, Morrison lets exceptional musicianship carry the songs. Furthermore, in the swing era, many blues singers were called "shouters," and while range was important, perfect pitch often lost out to depth of feeling. Morrison's deep growl sounds appropriately weathered in the rolling cover of Louis Jordan's "Early in the Morning" and the jump of Cannonball Adderley's "Sack o' Woe." He even manages to sound sultry covering his own "Moondance."
On the ballads, Morrison is somewhat weaker. "Who Can I Turn To?" sounds like karaoke, and "That's Life" is death. Morrison would have done well to hand these more delicate numbers over to another singer, as he did with several songs on A Night in San Francisco. However, his deliberate drawl on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Blues in the Night" reveals the gorgeous hook of the song where the greats who have covered it (Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Turner) have often failed, and "Centerpiece" has enough bounce to carry it into the top 10.
That's not going to happen. Morrison hasn't been within sight of the charts since Rod Stewart scored with a cover of his drippy "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" a few years ago. Morrison seems to have banished himself from the pop world, and with How Long doesn't give any sign of making a compromise. Wise move. He's too good for MTV, where one finds musicians who, to quote the Mose Allison song Morrison covers on How Long, have minds on vacation and mouths working overtime.
By Mark Gauvreau Judge