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Van Morrison
Back On Top
Virgin/Pointblank

In his first album of new material since 1997's The Healing Game, visionary Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison declares himself to be Back On Top. And in a commercial sense, perhaps he is, given his recent affiliation with industry megagiant Virgin Records. But artistically, Van the Man is merely back, offering ten songs that testify collectively to his well-honed craftsmanship and distinctive voice, but not a one that measures up to the special genius of days of yore, when he may have really been on top. If ever.

Since the mid-1960s, when he disbanded the seminal Irish rock group Them and went solo, Morrison has created some of the most idiosyncratic and thought-provoking recordings in popular music. Following the success of his 1967 radio-friendly hit single "Brown Eyed Girl," he stunned listeners by issuing the now classic Astral Weeks, a decidedly antipop album fusing jazz instrumentation with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and folk-bluesy vocals. Unprecedented in form and content, the record established Morrison as a serious artist, someone willing and able to follow his own muse, committed to an intensely personal poetry and defiant of industry trends or public expectations.

Morrison has generally worn that creative defiance well in a prolific career spanning 40-plus albums. But here's the catch: His serious artist persona is sometimes at odds with the fact that he's making and marketing pop music. And he occasionally seems full of himself.

These problems are evident in the song "Philosopher's Stone" (which also happens to be the title of a 1998 compilation of previously unissued tracks by Morrison). The phrase operates as a fairly obscure metaphor for Morrison's self-image as musical alchemist, alluding to the medieval myth of a magical stone by which metals may be transformed into gold. As he does also on "Goin' Down Geneva," Morrison here unconvincingly bemoans the difficulties of life "out on the road." But in this case it's not the literal touring as much as a figurative quest: "searching for the philosopher's stone" because his "job is turning lead into gold," that is, presumably, forging high art (or gold records) from the dross of personal experience. The lyrics are simultaneously self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, and neither quality is particularly attractive.

Despite the pretentious wordplay, the music is pleasant enough, as a lush string arrangement and Hammond organ provide a nicely textured background for this slow-tempo contemplation. And Morrison's singing, here as elsewhere, does have its soulful charms. The same cannot be said, however, for his elementary-level harmonica playing between verses, an indulgence that resurfaces on three other numbers.

On the up-tempo title track Morrison predictably and self-righteously condemns the commercial music industry, decrying "all the so-called trappings of success" and having to meet "with the fools on the hill." (Morrison's bitter disdain for corporate weasels is legendary and tiresomely documented on earlier albums.) Lacking any sense of irony about the source of his surely considerable wealth and privileged lifestyle, the singer actually seems to crave public sympathy.

But at least he acknowledges his own drive to keep "climbing to the top of the hill," even though he knows the inevitable result: "same old sensation, isolation at the top of the bill." Poor Van. At its best the song might be a gently rocking anthem of survival and lessons learned; at its worst it's a redundant denunciation of the business of music.

A related and equally weak attack-via-song occurs on "New Biography," in which Morrison repudiates the "so-called friends" who "play the name game" by talking to media types about his obsessively guarded private life (an irony given the persistently autobiographical substance of his songs). Musically it's one of the livelier numbers, distinguished by simple but effective saxophone fills. Morrison's vocal snarls and spit-fire invective are powerful tools of communication, and in the concluding passage he enters his trademark trancelike state, repeating key phrases in a crescendo of vocal riffs. But the message he's articulating so passionately seems a bit absurd.

Another sonically gorgeous piece is "In the Midnight," a softly rendered ballad delivered over a series of minor-key arpeggios on guitar. The Hammond organ (a fixture on nine tracks) sustains simple but haunting chords behind restrained singing. A delicate electric-guitar solo highlights the piece, followed by some doo-wop-style vocalizing near the end. As the song fades, Morrison tenderly scats triplets while a backup singer delivers a gently soaring and descending falsetto line. It's a love song, not a sermon, and it works.

But on too many of the numbers, Morrison's self-inflated preaching overrides musical achievement. And in the end, it's difficult to care about most of his lyrical themes, especially the alleged injustices resulting from his status as a venerable pop star (and one who recently elected to sign a lucrative deal with a huge conglomerate, at that).

One of the most effectively literary songwriters in the history of rock and roll, and one of its most enduring voices, Van Morrison has made albums that radiate his brilliance far more profoundly than Back On Top. He has proven before that when the lyrics are inspired, he's a rare poet indeed. But when the literary effect seems forced or the autobiographical ravings degenerate to peevishness, that former brilliance is perceptively dimmed.

-- Roger Wood

 
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