For his 37th studio album Van Morrison returns to his roots by celebrating his passion for the blues and the influence it has had on his own 50-year career. Like last year’s Blue and Lonesome by the Rolling Stones, Roll With The Punches offers new interpretations of both well-known and less familiar songs. But as well as 10 covers there are five self-penned songs and, rather than focusing mainly on Chicago blues, Morrison explores the genre’s widely varied expressions. A few of the tracks have featured on his previous live albums, but these are different versions.
He first fell in love with the blues listening to his father’s record collection while growing up in post-war Belfast, then of course first made his name as the front man of the band Them in the British blues-rock explosion of the ’60s. This album – not for the first time in his later output – feels like a trip down memory lane, but the nostalgia still has an edge to it. The hour-long, self-produced Roll With The Punches features contributions from fellow musicians from that era with whom he crossed paths: Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, The Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck (who plays guitar on seven tracks), Colosseum’s Chris Farlowe and frequent collaborator Georgie Fame, as well as jazz pianist Jason Rebello.
The opening, title track follows the classic 12-bar blues template so closely – including slide guitar and tinkling piano – that it sounds like a cover song but is in fact an original Morrison composition written with veteran lyricist Don Black. He offers punchy advice on how to get over the breakdown of a relationship: “Only one way you can clear your charm-meddled mind / Stop thinking she was just one of a kind.” Similarly faithful to the format is his own mid-tempo chugger Ordinary People, warning that you can’t rely on others: “You’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Transformation, on the other hand, is unmistakably a Morrison song with its twist of Celtic mysticism. A slow, tender ballad in the style of his late mellow period, it’s about spiritual renewal: “Gonna be a transformation, baby, down in your soul.” Too Much Trouble has jazzy horn and piano arrangements that hark back to Morrison’s Moondance album period in the early ’70s, as he bemoans: “Feels like everything’s a fight.” His song Fame, sounding like a personal message about the perils of celebrity (“You’ll never be the same ’cos everyone’s corrupted by fame”), is a heartfelt duet with Paul Jones (who also plays blues harp). Morrison also performs a lively duet with Chris Farlowe on T-Bone Walker’s classic West Coast blues Stormy Monday which segues into Doc Pomus’s Lonely Avenue (first a hit for Ray Charles). And on Count Basie’s swinging Goin’ To Chicago he sings with Georgie Fame (who also plays Hammond organ).
There are two songs from the immediate post-war era: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s How Far From God with its gospel message offset by boogie-woogie piano and guttural vocals, and Teardrops From My Eyes written by Rudy Toombs for ‘Queen of R&B’ Ruth Brown, a jazzy number more laid back than the original with Van Morrison crooning and playing a sax solo. The mood turns soulful in lead single Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me, with a burning guitar solo from Jeff Beck and female backing vocals swelling with emotion. Bo Diddley’s distinctively shuffling rock’n’roll style comes through in both the driving rhythms of I Can Tell, and the syncopated beat and low, twangy guitar chords of Ride on Josephine. Country blues artist Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Automobile Blues is full of sexual innuendo, while Benediction by the late Mose Allison (with whom Morrison recorded the song on a tribute album in the ’90s) has a quasi-gospel vibe. And in Mean Old World by Little Walter wailing harmonica-playing mimics the master Chicago bluesman as Morrison gives vent to feelings of loneliness and desolation.
Morrison does not have the same vocal power or raw intensity as a performer as he did when younger, but his voice has become deeper and richer in tone in later years. Roll with the Punches may show him playing it safe but there’s every sign that the prolific 72-year-old has plenty of more rounds left in him.