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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

The cover of Keep It Simple seems to say it all, with Van Morrison’s Mount-Rushmore-like visage emerging from the murk around it (like Marlon Brando’s in Apocalypse Now). It’s a stark visual statement that shores up with the music within, a cycle of songs boiled down to basic elements: deep, steamy blues and unfussy, low-key grooves.

The lyrical sentiments also seem to get back to basics, especially for the man who penned such memorable lines as these 40 years ago (and countless poetic others): “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream/Where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop.”

The platitudes here come off like quaint parables or clichés: “I was educated by the school of hard knocks” (“School of Hard Knocks”); “Alcohol was too big a price/That’s why I said no dice” (“Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore”); and even a repeated cry of “Shake your money maker,” from “That’s Entrainment,” a song named after a phenomenon that causes two nearby clocks to settle into the same ticking pace and cohabiting women to settle into the same menstrual cycle. (OK: points for originality.)

But there is nothing about Keep It Simple that challenges the listener or even points to the alarming talent of its creator. And according to the title, that seems to be the idea—but whether that point is worth making over the course of an entire LP is debatable. Morrison has made a career out of inscrutability, and the flat gaze and sullen gravity we see on the album cover add up to the same indefinable expression he’s worn since Them first broke the U.K. charts with “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Gloria.” (And isn’t it strange that a man who has written such beautiful tunes can exude such a darkly neutral brand of energy?)

I had a professor once, a leathery Clint Eastwood of a man with a formidable drinking habit, who claimed that he knew Faulkner better than the writer knew himself. I would never open myself up to such hubris, but I am writing a book on the music of Van Morrison and, in some ways, feel none the wiser for it. For one, he’s several artists rolled into one: the sappy balladeer of songs like “Have I Told You Lately,” “Crazy Love,” and “Someone Like You,” and the prismatic poet of Saint Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece, etc.

He has given thousands of bad wedding bands raison d’etre with the jazz-lite of “Moondance,” yet he is also the daring, high-wire vocalist who can emit meaning through sound or repeatedly hammer away at a phrase, worrying it for emotional meaning. He is the pugnacious runt who high-kicked his way through The Last Waltz in a terrible stretch suit, stealing the show from a caravan of mighty artists, including Bob Dylan. He is the creator of the otherworldly beauty of Astral Weeks, whose jazz intonations and images of a pseudo-fantastical childhood in Belfast have provided timeless enchantment for decades of listeners (and prompted a big, moist, and famous essay from Lester Bangs).

There’s also the Celtic thing, of course, or the drunk college kid who thinks Morrison is the lead singer of the Doors but howls every word to “Brown Eyed Girl,” plastic beer cup aloft. (There was even a time in my own life when I thought he simply made sex music for hippies.)

But what to make of the artist at 62? In recent years, he’s befuddled us even more by releasing an album of country-music covers, a duet album with Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister, and a skiffle album. (Skiffle, like bangers and mash and Premier Football, doesn’t translate well to American sensibilities.) There’s a restless search here, and that is part of Morrison’s brilliance. As ballast to his commercial appeal, he has taken us down relentlessly experimental pathways: the 11-minute vocal improvisation of “Listen to the Lion” in the early ’70s, the avant-jazz and ambient textures of the ‘80s.

But for his first album of original material since 1999, Keep It Simple is a disappointment by any standard. Here, he frequently goes back to the blues, a foundation since his teenage years, but it’s a beer-commercial, nightclub kind of blues—this from the man who created his own distinct, offbeat take on the genre as early as his 20s, locating it in his own artistic, psychological, and geographical landscape (“Cyprus Avenue,” for example).

Elsewhere on this album, and much like recent Dylan, he seems to be trying to create a new kind of American standard: “Song of Home” is Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie rendered too glibly. You can also hear too-direct appropriations from Hank Williams and Ray Charles. (Don’t get me wrong—if, say, Lucinda Williams had released the same album it would be heralded as genius—but this is the man who sublimated influences long ago to craft what only can be described as “Van Morrison Music.”)

And while (numerous yellow biographies aside) Morrison himself has an inner life that one can only guess at, you really have to wonder what he’s thinking as he literally scats “blahblahblahblahblah” in the middle of “Behind the Ritual.” (I can appreciate the vestiges of age, and his voice settling deeper into his barrel of a body and taking on oaken tones, but there is scant vocal attack on this album.)

There are small pleasures here: It’s good to hear longtime ally (and Hudson Valley native) John Platania back in the fold, offering up rich guitar colors, though Morrison remains, decades later, deathly opposed to anything but the quietest electric guitar. It’s also always fun to hear Morrison bleating earnestly at his saxophone, something he hasn’t quit doing since leaving East Hyndford Street at 15 to play airbases with his early show bands.

It could be that I’m just an ingrate. What do I expect 40 albums down the line? Maybe, like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, all Van Morrison can provide for us, after such a rich array of so much, for so many years, is small comfort. But I don’t believe it for a minute. So while Keep It Simple will soon fade from my iPod, I’ll keep listening to the old lion, because I know he’s got a daemon in him yet—it’s just a question of being down for the game.

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