In a visit last weekend to one of the few chain department stores still selling recorded music, Van Morrison’s “Roll with the Punches” was found sitting in the new release/best seller bin alongside albums by more obviously bankable acts like Foo Fighters and Jay-Z. It seems that, at age 72, Morrison maintains some semblance of an adult fanbase that regards him as more than a mere nostalgia act.
That being said, “Roll with the Punches,” the Irish musicians’ 37th studio album, barters in a sense of very real nostalgia: the rootsier kind that reaches back to the blues and soul influences that largely shaped him as a singer. Morrison has traveled these pathways before on past albums. He’s even taken earlier stabs at some of the songs that populate “Roll with the Punches.” But as a generous journey through vintage inspiration, the record is a total joyride.
A lot of the charm comes down to a single essential: Morrison’s voice. On last year’s “Keep Me Singing” — amazingly, his best charting album to date in this country — Morrison’s proud Belfast wail rang clearer than it has in a decade. That record consisted mostly of Morrison originals — meditative, mid-tempo works blending Celtic soul and American R&B. “Roll with the Punches” leans far more to the latter with tunes penned or popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mose Allison, Little Walter and Lightnin’ Hopkins along with five of Morrison’s own works. All are delivered with the same vocal buoyancy as “Keep Me Singing” orchestrated by elegantly soulful arrangements that make all these varied songs sound quite at home next to one another on a single record.
An after-hours take of Little Walter’s “Mean Old World,” for instance, sounds like Morrison could have cut it in the early ’70s, with its subtle, ominous blend of piano, harp and guitar as well as a hint of youthful desperation echoing from the vocal delivery. Ditto for a medley of “Stormy Monday” and “Lonely Avenue.” Morrison recorded both separately on his 1994 concert album “A Night in San Francisco.” Here the tunes are played as a dirty mash-up with help from guest co-vocalist Chris Farlowe, the veteran British blues ace who sounds remarkably like Mavis Staples.
Though the blues-soul attitude maintains a high comfort level, a few tunes nicely alter the course. “Transformation,” a Morrison original that sounds like a calming gospel affirmation caught somewhere between the Impressions’ classic “People Get Ready” and the singer’s own 1971 hit “Tupelo Honey,” gets goosed in the middle by a brief, stinging guitar break from Jeff Beck while an album closing cover of Bo Diddley’s “Ride On Josephine” turns this already rich blues party of an album into a pure hullabaloo.