Sometimes one doesn't know what to make of Van Morrison. After four-plus decades, he still has a scratchy, soul-saturated Irish tenor that embraces spiritual solace one moment and earthly unrest the next.
His newest album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, extends that tightrope walk. Early on, during Goin' Down to Monte Carlo, he seeks solitude in a restaurant where, instead of the normal social chatter, he faces a background polluted by "some phony kind of pseudo-jazz."
But one song later, on Born to Sing's title tune, he sounds positively enlightened over a light blues rumble with a pronounced New Orleans accent ("when the band starts to swing, you'll know everything because you were born to sing").
Long-in-the-tooth visionary or blessed curmudgeon: Morrison is a bit of both on his new album. Credit some of that spiritual yin-yang to the surroundings. Born to Sing is Morrison's first recording in more than a decade for Blue Note, a label known for its sterling bop history but now presided over by pop maestro Don Was. Curiously, Was produces Born to Sing by placing Morrison's vocals within orchestral, soul-leaning jazz arrangements that are anything but "phony" or "pseudo." The brass and rhythm sections temper the entire album, providing it a warm but slightly autumnal cast that recalls Morrison's great Warner Bros. albums of the '70s and early '80s.
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But, as always, that tug of war between earthly strife and heavenly promise is at the heart of Morrison's songs.
On the album-closing Educating Archie, Morrison offers a shopping list of modern evils (the media, corporate greed, etc.) that rob society of individualism. It's not exactly a revelatory pronouncement. But when that weary Belfast tenor hits the punch line ("What happened to you?"), Was' blues stroll becomes a profound ally.
Breaking from the pack is Pagan Heart, a lean, wiry mediation that sounds like a postscript from Morrison pal John Lee Hooker, but with a more elegant stomp. It's a fitting testimony. The rest of the album might go on about the evils of bad jazz and corporate manipulation. But when Morrison and Was take Pagan Heart down to the crossroads, Born to Sing turns into true testimony.