Pensioner rock. It’s probably not a genre that will catch on, but it certainly seems to have been a trend in 2012. This year, we’ve had returns from a fleet of 60 and 70-somethings: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.
Van Morrison has just turned 67, and seems to have settled into a relaxed dotage. Whereas Waits and Dylan still have the power to thrill and mystify, Morrison has taken the Cohen route in his later years: light, jazzy music that, while maybe not holding any big surprises, remains effortlessly enjoyable and listenable. Born To Sing: No Plan B continues that tradition – although it may not come close to holding a candle to any of his landmark albums, it’s always nice to hear that curmudgeonly growl once again.
Born To Sing: No Plan B (you’ll be unsurprised to learn that Ben Drew does indeed not feature on this record) is Morrison’s first album for four years, and his second for legendary jazz label Blue Note. A quick scan down the tracklisting reveals that not much has changed in the world of the Belfast Cowboy (Mystic Of The East and Pagan Heart are almost song titles that you can imagine a parody of Van Morrison recording) and that’s confirmed by the first note of Open The Door (To Your Heart).
It’s a lightly swinging jazz tune that teeters just on the right side of blandness – expertly arranged horns and tinkering pianos abound, with plenty of Morrison’s famous vocal tics making an appearance. It’s a tad formulaic, but there’s a warm, comforting feel to it, like throwing on a warm coat on a Winter’s day. It’s a deceptive start though, as it becomes clear throughout the album that Morrison’s legendary grumpiness has evolved into something approaching anger: this is the first Morrison album for a while that demonstrates some kind of fire in the belly.
The superb Going Down To Monte Carlo is the first indication of this – eight minutes long, it sees Morrison railing against “kinda phoney pseudo-jazz”, and pretty much the whole human race (“Satre says Hell is other people, I think he’s right”). His band sound particularly wonderful, with a muted trumpet and double bass making for memorable solos. It’s a theme that runs through the album, with many tracks focusing on the failure of capitalism and disillusionment with society in general.
End Of The Rainbow, for example, is pretty bleak with Morrison singing of carpet-baggers, pan-handlers and complaining that “everything now has to be nailed to the floor”. The jazz remains as lilting as ever, but it’s somehow the opposite of easy listening. If In Money We Trust treads similar territory, but there’s an almost menacing, bluesey swagger to the song, and following mention of Satre earlier on, Morrison even quotes Friedrich Nietzsche.
The closing Educating Archie sees Morrison at his most venomous, taking a swipe at the “global elite” and “propaganda, entertainment on TV and all kinds of shite”. He does sound perilously close to a tin-hatted conspiracy theorist at times – “you’re controlled by the media, all that you say and do” – but the overall message is a simple one: “what happened to the individual, and what happened to you?”.
It’s not all railing against politics and society though. Close Enough To Jazz revisits the instrumental track from his 1993 album Too Long In Exile, and adds some vocals to it – it’s a tad lightweight, but it’s a joy to listen to Morrison’s band in full flow. Pagan Heart is like a throwback to old 50s blues, full of John Lee Hooker style riffs and even talk of “going down to the crossroads”, while Retreat And View sees a return to the old pastoral vibes that Morrison was so comfortable with during the ’80s.
Like his contemporary Bob Dylan, Van Morrison has very little left to prove, but a lot more to say. Like Dylan, Born To Sing will probably be an acquired taste for some (the jazzy backing may put some off, as may Morrison’s tendency to incessantly repeat lines and start scatting every so often), but it’s yet another example of his sometimes erratic genius.