Van Morrison, John Prine and Bob Weir have never abandoned their sense of artistic adventure while releasing new material and a more-or-less steady vocation of live performance, but the music the three fashioned 45 to 50 years ago still tends to define them.
For Morrison, 71, it was the mix of Irish poetics and Laurel Canyon soul on the albums “Astral Weeks” and “Moondance.” Prine, who turns 70 on Monday, favored the everyman folk reflections introduced on his brilliant self-titled debut record in 1971.
Then there is Weir, who turns 69 on Oct. 16, and whose musical persona was forged by decades of jam-band psychedelia as co-frontman of the Grateful Dead.
Yet, here they all are in fall 2016, a little musically long in the tooth, perhaps, but upholding their distinctive artistic legacies with refreshing confidence on a trio of fine new albums.
Morrison’s “Keep Me Singing” is the most decidedly autumnal of the lot. Its baker’s dozen of songs slide by with subtle gloss and orchestration to downplay the contentiousness that fired up many of his recent recordings. But restlessness rules the day in tunes like “Memory Lane,” which is anything but a comforting nostalgia ride, and a cover of “Share Your Love With Me” that embraces its inherent pop spirit as well as an inescapable despondency. Best of all, though, is Morrison’s singing. Gone is the garbling of recent albums. In its place is a sage variation of the Irish soul confessor that made Morrison such a sensation in the first place.
Prine’s “For Better, or Worse” is fine as long as you can accept that this is another record of covers — a sampler of country duets with female singers designed as a follow-up to 1999’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” There are many stirring moments in these ruminations on love, marriage and divorce, including a run at Hank Williams’ devastating “Cold, Cold Heart” with Miranda Lambert and a more playful stab at Buck Owens’ “Mental Cruelty” alongside Kacey Musgraves. The guest singers offer varying degrees of country consternation, but, as always, it is the quietly hapless quality to Prine’s singing that sells the stories.
Weir’s “Blue Mountain” is the biggest surprise of the three, a return — thematically, at least — to the Americana vision of 1970’s “Workingman’s Dead.” He has new cohorts this time: Josh Ritter and members of The National. The results sound suitably spacious (the tastefully ambient “Cottonwood Lullaby”), dark in texture and temperament (“Ghost Towns”) and hopeful during a quiet quest for salvation (“One More River to Cross”). Weir might sing as if he’s crossing the Rio Grande, but the plaintive soundscapes that open up throughout “Blue Mountain” take him — and us — clear across the cosmos.