Style: Warm soul, jazz, and R&B; Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Leadbelly
Top tracks: "If in Money You Trust," "Born to Sing," "Pagan Heart"
The name of Van Morrison's latest record isn't an apology, exactly, but it is something of an explanation. Born to Sing: No Plan B is the 35th album of a career that spans close to five decades. Van is still singing, still scatting into the mystic, because this is what he's born and called to do. For him, music is a habit of being.
It's an attitude that Morrison has likely held since the very beginning, but it's particularly helpful when considering his more recent output. Even his most ardent fans would likely agree that nothing he's made in recent years even touches the same hushed mystery and romantic bluster of 1968's Astral Weeks, nor do any of the latter-day Morrison albums quite have the deft touch and nimble energy of 1970's Moondance.
He made the transition from discoverer to craftsman a long time ago—but if his albums haven't surprised in a long while, they haven't often disappointed, either. These days, his albums bear witness to the real pleasures that come from hearing an old pro at the top of his game. Craft is rewarding in and of itself, especially when it's as warm and as soulful as it is here.
Morrison may make albums because it's what he's born to do, but that doesn't mean he doesn't also have something to say. On Born to Sing, his songs speak to deep spiritual longing, to a restless and dogged pursuit of truth and revelation in an age of mass confusion. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these ten songs also speak to contemporary events, with a candor and directness that is fairly uncommon in Morrison's catalog.
That's not always such a good thing: When he throws around lyrics about being "a slave to the capitalist system," which is "ruled by the global elite," it's hard not to pine for the romantic poetry and mysticism of Astral Weeks, or even St. Dominic's Preview.
Elsewhere, his muse leads him into more rousing territory, by turns angry, devastated, and hopeful. "End of the Rainbow" is a mournful jazz number that finds the singer bidding farewell to capitalism and materialism alike. When he says there's "no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow" and "no social ladder to climb," it sounds like he's surveying a scene of financial ruin—yet there's something about this lack of material distractions that can't help but seem liberating.
The album's breezy opener, "Open the Door to Your Heart," moves along at a lazy gait that's a bit too casual to make it one of the singer's better R&B numbers; it does, however, make his reminder that "money doesn't make you fulfilled" go down easier.
A song called "Pagan Heart" finds Morrison—who has never identified with any one particular religion, but has dabbled in a number of beliefs and would certainly consider himself "spiritual"—standing at an existential crossroads. The song that comes before it, "If in Money We Trust," may offer an explanation of what that crossroads is—inverting the familiar mantra on our dollar bills, its lyric painting a clear-eyed picture of idolatry: "When 'God is dead' is not enough, then in money you trust."
It's a sobering reflection of our times, and of our humanity—delivered with the conviction of a man who was born to sing it.
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