After a career spanning over 40 years and over 30 albums, Van Morrison has earned the soubriquet of ‘legend’. From his work with Them to the awe-inspiring run of solo albums in the 1980s, he’s been responsible for some of the most magical, inspiring music ever created. Why, he even managed to record a duet with Cliff Richard and still remain immeasurably cool.
Over the last few years though, Morrison seems to have lost his sparkle. There’s been the odd inspired moment, but in truth, his last truly great album was 1991′s Hymns To The Silence – and even that was overlong. Pay The Devil is a collection of mainly covers of country music standards beloved by Morrison, and is the sad sound of a man on auto-pilot.
This may well have been a labour of love for Morrison, but it hardly shines through in the record. It’s certainly authentically produced, sounding for all the world like it was recorded in Nashville (it was actually recorded in Ireland with his usual band), but unlike that other Morrison album of cover versions, the Chieftains‘ collaboration Irish Heartbeat, there’s no joy or passion in any of the songs.
There are twelve cover versions here, ranging from tracks that even the most casual of country music fan will recognise – Your Cheatin’ Heart, Half As Much – to lesser known songs such as Rodney Cresswell’s Till I Gain Control Again. There are also three Morrison originals thrown in, although it’s fair to say that none of these really stand up with any of his previous classics.
There Stands The Glass is a good opener however, with Morrison on fine vocal form, barking out the typically downbeat country lyrics like a man who’s really lived the words of the song. If Morrison had stuck to this gritty approach, then Pay The Devil may have been more of a success. Yet the second track, Half As Much, sets a twee precedent for the rest of the album, being a bland, almost jaunty, number with Morrison sounding almost as bored as the listener will be.
Your Cheatin’ Heart suffers from over familiarity, and Back Street Affair is ploddingly pedestrian, while Don’t You Make Me High is quite frankly just a bit wrong – the sound of Morrison singing “if you feel my thigh, you’ll want to move up high, you’re gonna get a surprise” proves rather toe-curling.
Morrison’s vocals too leave a lot to be desired. On some songs, such as the self-penned title track, it’s almost painful to hear him straining to reach for the notes, and on the aptly titled This Has Got To Stop, he almost sounds like a parody of himself. He’s not helped by the arrangements though – given that so many of these songs deal in misery and heartbreak, the carefree, upbeat instrumentation sounds rather odd. Indeed, the sugary backing vocals on Once A Day almost render the track unlistenable.
There is one track that saves Pay The Devil from being a complete disaster though. What Am I Living For is magnificently broody and reminiscent of the man at his peak from the late 80s. The country stylings are toned down for once, and there’s real passion in Morrison’s voice. It’s a sound that’s sadly rare to be found throughout the rest of the album, apart from the mournful closer of Till I Gain Control Again.
The onset of age obviously doesn’t mean talent fades – look at the quality of Johnny Cash‘s final recordings for example, or Loretta Lynn‘s recent excursion with Jack White. Yet Pay The Devil is for Van Morrison completists only – if you’re a stranger to the man’s superlative back catalogue then there are a lot better places to start than here.