ALBUM OF THE YEAR - VAN MORRISON'SBy Howard Davis
2016 was a grand year for Van The Man - The Belfast Cowboy turned 71, received a knighthood, and reissued an expanded set of soul-fired live recordings from 1973 ('It's Too Late to Stop Now'). In the game for 53 years now, Morrison's albums consistently open new windows into the heart and soul of one of the most enigmatic figures in modern music.
'Keep Me Singing' is Morrison's 36th studio album, his first set of new songs since 2012’s 'Born to Sing: No Plan B.' Its relatively restrained pace, crisply pristine production values, and deceptively simple arrangements belie its depth and precision. A mellow mournful tone pervades this wistful collection of twelve original songs and a cover of the blues standard 'Share Your Love With Me,' made famous by Aretha Franklin in 1970. The Irish balladeer is one of the few stratospheric singers whose longevity means his modern offerings are inevitably compared to their earlier work. We may no longer expect Morrison to recreate the astonishing 'Astral Weeks,' the magic of 'Moondance,' or even the propulsive beat of 'Wavelength,' but 'Keep Me Singing' shares their gentle tone of self-reflective melancholy. Morrison has left behind the ground-shaking angry youth of 'Gloria,' preferring to explore the more mature prospect of sustained longing, as in 'Every Time I See a River' - "I can go days where nothing is wrong/But it just doesn’t last very long." Simple things, like the sight of a river or the sound of a stream, trigger memories of long lost love. The same theme of vanished passion is explored in 'Out in the Cold Again,' in which he laments being left stranded outside his lover’s door.
Paradoxically, it seems as though time has sanded away a lot of Morison's grit. He’s not going to shoot off into the atmosphere the way he once did on 'Caravan' or 'Wild Night,' and remains coolly at mid-range throughout. The smooth subtleties of his delivery are more discernible and the moments when he breaks away from his crooning demeanour, as in 'Share Your Love With Me' or 'Look Beyond the Hill,' are all the more thrilling as a result. This laid-back approach perfectly matches the mellow jazz and blues grooves that accompany his musings.
Lyrical nostalgia has always been Morrison’s forte. Over ornate piano arrangements, highly-orchestrated string sections, and delicately-muted trumpets, Morrison reminisces about 70’s Bay Area bohemia, gently recalling the Northern Irish countryside of his adolescence, and the transcendent experience of first hearing Sam Cooke on the radio. For Morrison, the mystery of memory has always been the only reliable way to navigate an increasingly uncertain future - "I got to go way back in my memory bank/To see how it ought to be now," he sings over a mid-tempo R&B groove on the title track. The deeply haunting 'Memory Lane' reiterates this theme and Morrison closes the album with 'Caledonia Swing,' once again evoking the mystical name the Romans gave Scotland/Northern England.
Will Hermes in 'Rolling Stone' admirably characterizes the album's mature appeal as follows - "Through arrangements elegant to a fault, his mercurial tenor, more supple and restrained, remains a marvel … a reading of 'Share Your Love With Me' … splits the difference between the Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Aretha versions, full of chortles, snarls, and gospel-tinged hollers. The vintage chill of 'Every Time I See a River,' meanwhile, is an invitation to float downstream with a blues admiral." Or, as Morrison himself puts it, "Now I’m back here again with more questions than answers."
You can watch novelist Ian Rankin interview Van about the album here - http://www.mojo4music.com/24688/van-morrison-keep-singing