VAN MORRISON’S STRONGEST ALBUM IN 30 YEARS BREAKS NEW GROUND
The football score-like headline above alludes to the number of songs in Van Morrison’s recently-released album that directly or indirectly take on the “Woke” identity politics of this era, and its manifestations in mainstream and social media. While 28 songs on the album, plainly called Latest Record Project Volume 1, make it Van Morrison’s longest studio album in his 54-year-old career, those 19 tracks constitute not just a huge thematic departure in Morrison’s career but fire the first notable salvos by any major musical artist in that direction.
This is completely against the grain. Despite being from Northern Ireland and growing up in Belfast during the most tumultuous political period in its history, Morrison has not done a single political song in his career. Not one. His focus was always the personal, the existential and later, the spiritual. Despite being the music world’s most legendary curmudgeon, once even bestowed the honorific of “Ireland’s rudest man”, he never did what could be classified as a “protest song” in all these years.
Predictably, the album has been savaged by the mainstream media in the Western world; after all, it is not used to being attacked musically, not yet. The act of grouping this media as a homogenised entity may seem excessive until you actually notice how similar the bad reviews are. Almost every one of them grudgingly admits that Van Morrison’s voice sounds great, his band is musically magnificent but the lyrics let him down. Really, the lyrics? In a rock and roll album, the lyrics determine its merit? Is that not truly a first in sixty-five years of rock and roll?
To summon up the energy required to deal with the contemporariness of his subject, Morrison paradoxically went back in time, to his roots and the music of his youth, invoking the blues-rock sound of his first band Them (from 1964–66) . The bite and snarl of that and the uptempo swing of Jump Blues further merged with his familiar rock cadence results in a collection of songs more varied than any in his legendary career — a staggering achievement for a 75-year-old artist. The band’s hugely accomplished polish is palpable in all hues here, and Morrison’s vocals are as good as they’ve ever been in his entire career, his twenties included (that is remarkable, for whom it was said in his youth that he could sing the numbers off a phone book compellingly). Whether angry or playful or just quintessentially himself with a sense-of-wonder vibe absolutely no one else can replicate, the two hour running time of the album allows for its real essence to settle, if one chooses to listen in that old-fashioned way. It is actually the only way to truly understand its achievement though — through the ebbs and flows of the varied songs — with the backbeat of an annoyance that has also now overflowed.
This annoyance also needs to be put into context. Van Morrison has always had a difficult relationship with the media and even his own fans. Given how often he walked against the grain of what was popular or acceptable, and how much his music challenged the status quo (which is also why so much of it appears timeless now) right through his career, he was often misunderstood and written-off several times previously. Add the IQ-dropping media features and interviews that began in the 1980s to his naturally grumpy demeanour and the net result was fairly predictable —manifesting in impatience and an intolerance of fools, resulting in rude behaviour (often well-deserved) and even found expression in his music (like these two songs 28 years apart, this classic from 1991 and this gem from 2019, though part of a larger subset).
This lowbrow idiocy is at an all-time low now. Take this 2019 interview/feature in The Guardian (one place where the rot has been most visible most recently). This “features writer” who claimed to be a huge Van Morrison fan, travelled to Cardiff to interview him about his new album (the one just before this), made the entire piece more about her than him, asked the most juvenile questions that an undergraduate would be rightfully embarrassed of, then got miffed at his irritable responses (when even rudimentary research would have told her how predictable that was) and then, she actually wrote these immortal words — “For a moment I consider telling him to grow up.” Yes, you read that right. And the editor of this overgrown child allowed this to be published, taking the delusional tendency in many journalists in the modern era to see themselves as the intellectual equal of their subjects, especially someone as legendary as this, a giant step forward. (Predictably, The Guardian gave this new album a one-star rating.) Though one of the more notable lows, this was not a one-off.
The mediocrity of tribalism and groupthink that resulted in identity politics and then its extreme form of “Wokeness”, where anything was fair game in the name of virtue signalling, also found wings because of social media and its inherent tendency towards encouraging and escalating low hanging fruit outrage. A fair amount of this was directed towards Van Morrison as well, whenever he spoke out against established norms.
This pandemic prominently brought that to a boil. It is useful to keep in mind that in 1968/9, Van Morrison was in the US when the Hong Kong flu pandemic spread around the world, killing 1 million people worldwide. Brought back by American soldiers returning from Vietnam, it spread all around the US in very quick time and killed more than 100,000 Americans. The pandemic was handled in a way that was symptomatic of that time, with a larger sense of the picture beginning to seep into every aspect of life then. There were only localised surgical lockdowns in the US, with no widespread panic — in fact, the famous Woodstock concert took place between two waves of the pandemic (no, it did not cause the second wave; that happened later). Maybe there was less politics in science then or maybe the politicians themselves were different or the expectations from them were, maybe the lack of social media virtue-signalling played its part as well.
Covid-19 is the second pandemic on this scale that Morrison experienced in his life, and he appears to have been appalled by the way the world dealt with it this time. This time he was in the UK, and he saw first-hand and up-close how a universal lockdown became the norm without enough scientific basis (the single biggest scandal of Covid-19, Imperial College et al., as will be studied in greater detail later). He appears to have been horrified at the panic-mongering and the seemingly arbitrary way in which civic liberties were curtailed on an unprecedented scale, a complete contrast to 1968/9. Moreover, to the shock of those who demanded a wider conversation on such massively damaging steps, they were not just ceremoniously ignored by the mainstream media but were reviled as “Covid-deniers” and “anti-maskers”, even when those specificities were plain lies. Later on in the cycle, when he spoke out against people’s livelihood being snatched without enough scientific backing including the live music industry, enough people accused him of wailing about losing his money. It is not just the social media where such unsubstantiated outrage appears but the mainstream media as well, in equal measure.
Morrison was riled enough by all this to make a huge exception in his musical career — by doing singles that questioned these very directly, the only major artist anywhere in the world to do so — for example, “As I Walked Out”, “Born To Be Free” and “No More Lockdown”. It cannot be stressed enough how much of a departure this was for Morrison, who had fiercely not done a single “protest song” in his entire career before this; this is how strongly and urgently he felt about this issue. Despite a vicious backlash from the mainstream media and Woke virtue signallers on social media, Eric Clapton and Roger Daltrey added their voices to this, as did quite a few other artists and celebrities after that. It wasn’t just their respective fans who were grateful to these voices for speaking up but also a pretty large proportion of the population, many of whom are sick and tired of being falsely and arrogantly classified as “right wing” and stupid by the mainstream media — rendered bizarrely homogeneous in its ideology, just like academia (about which there has been considerable conversation in the last few years).
This ugly response seemed to fire up Morrison even more and for the first time in his career, he appeared to design an entire album of songs around his pushback to this, but without being as explicit as he was in the “anti-lockdown songs” (a conscious choice, no doubt, for the sake of artistic posterity). Ironically, thanks to the lockdown, and artist availability, he got additional top drawer musicians to play for him with more-than-usual time to rehearse (with social distancing, as was stressed) and the net result is perhaps the most musically polished album in many years by him, further accentuated by the variety in the album. His fury seemed to have unlocked fresh vitality from within him. And the significant creative challenge of merging the banalities of social commentary with his unique poetic sensibility was overcome with such an ease of expression that it boggles the mind for such creative ambition emanating from a 75-year-old (who has otherwise been mining fairly expected terrain for quite a few years). He has not bothered with poetic euphemisms here, and dealt in plain-speak (much like the album title itself), not flinching from using words like “troll”, “computer screens”, “PR”, “mainstream media”, “Facebook”, “non-essential”, “narrative”, “obsolete”, “system” and so on.
Smartly, the album sequencing allows for the ebbs and flows to take hold, without ever losing sight of its central theme. The opening track declares the intent of this album very clearly, spelling out its agenda and yet manages to be far from a throwaway tune (with surprising memorability). Then, it lays a further foundation for what is to follow — by bemoaning that same rock and roll spirit of the late-1960s that dealt with the pandemic of its time so differently. Anyone who has any perspective knows that the creative vitality of that period is incomparable and in stark contrast to the highly dumbed-down present. Risk-taking and independent thinking was of a level that is unthinkable today, as was the amount of depth being sought by younger energies. Van Morrison himself, in his early twenties then, was one of the key contributors to that energy (more on that below) and very well-qualified to highlight its gnawing absence now, especially within the musical realm.
Rock and roll spirit is also about individuality and its fullest expression, which directly clashes with the tribalism of the identity politics generation. “Woke” people commit themselves to an idea based on groupthink’s principles that they believe elevates them but it actually diminishes them for being less than their authentic selves. Mediocrity is simply choosing to not being yourself — that is the essence of this clash and indeed, this song.
Perhaps the best track on the album is “Psychoanalyst’s Ball”, a scathing indictment of social media and its “Woke” virtue signallers as well as a reaction to mainstream media that has lost its way. The most amusing, even amazing, interpretation by a prominent music magazine desperate to drill holes into the album, was that this song makes fun of the mentally ill — a bit like declaring this delightful Blues song in the album, about the fortuitousness of some mistakes, to actually be about premature ejaculation.
It really seems as if many of these writers were actually reviewing the guy who wrote those anti-lockdown songs in 2020 rather than the songs in this new album — good old identity politics in play again. (You can see this 18-month-old interview of Van Morrison and decide if this sounds like the senile and bitter man these journalists want to so desperately depict him as). Even otherwise, there is a distinct problem. Maybe the pay is not much so they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, but the shocking illiteracy and lack of imagination in people writing about music today in the media pretty much all around the world is hard to believe. The younger ones try to make up for a lack of perspective with attitude and verbal felicities and the older ones are so steeped in nostalgia that they are forever comparing the new material with 40-year-old classics, which actually misses the point in both.
The varying Blues lilts in the album bring a richness overall. The lightness of “Thank God For The Blues” on one hand, a scathing indictment of the cancel culture in “The Long Con” on another. The effect on one’s mental health in the process of trying to please maximum people in “Diabolic Pressure” (with a Latin American rhythm), his “message” to journalists and critics trying to pin him down in “Mistaken Identity” (invoking “the unexamined life is not worth living”, both bluesy and jazzy). The playful swing of “My Time After A While”, providing something like a warning to the Woke and the PC crowd (“99 out of a 100 people can’t just be wrong”).
But it’s not just the Blues. For those missing his quintessential chant-like intonation, there’s “Duper’s Delight”, the clarity and charge of his vocal as compelling as it’s ever been; the rail against societal hypocrisy (the media as the central target again, personalised here) in the lyrics providing a telling counterpoint. The playfulness in “Breaking The Spell” and somehow finding a very enjoyable freshness in familiar Van Morrison territory with “Love Should Come With A Warning” (with some great background singing) underscore the album’s quality.
And the utter and sheer joy of “Up County Down” — this is also Van Morrison’s essence, for those who’ve been listening for a while, however difficult it may be to square the “rock’s sourest personality” reputation with this vibe.
This variety is perhaps the reason why there are so many tracks on this album — to make it clear that this topical rage is not the only thing Van Morrison is about even now. It rounds up the personality of the album with a humanity beyond what is perhaps just an irritation, however intense, in the larger scheme of things. This makes the topical timeless and the album universal, given how the sheer quality of the songs themselves transcend the platitudinous territory they might have occupied.
But it is that rage and that topic that ultimately defines the album and gives it a status beyond any in his entire body of work, and also makes it revolutionary for being the first substantial work by an artist of this stature against this mindset. He pushes the envelope in songs like “Western Man”, so easy to mischaracterise (as pro-colonial, and of course, misogynist — the Woke calling card, because of “man” in the title, what else) and so certain of being pilloried. But he’s actually touching a hugely significant subject here that many are literally too scared to approach in these insane times — about how the West is frittering away the many significant advances the last two centuries brought for civilisations everywhere, not just for the West, through a surfeit of guilt and tentativeness (The Strange Death Of Europe by Douglas Murray is perhaps the best book on that subject). This courage to walk in such troubled waters lyrically to at the very least provoke a conversation is what makes this album landmark.
Meanwhile, “Stop Bitching, Do Something” exhorts people who feel the same way to actually act, do something, and not be passive before it’s too late. Evoking the blues-rock of his very first band Them from the mid-1960s, with his vocals astonishingly sounding from that period as well, the bite and snarl of the song putting the music world in shame for it requiring a 75-year-old man to traverse such territory. (The exquisite musicianship of the backing band is not something younger bands can easily emulate, of course.)
Naturally, this is one of the most mocked songs on the album. It’s ironic because someone like, say, Paul Simon is never mocked like this when he sings just as directly, nor are rap artists obviously. In a recent interview to talk about this new album, Morrison referred to some of these songs as “satire”, but actually, even more than the songs, the reaction to them in the mainstream and social media merits that description. There is little doubt that Morrison expected this reaction, which is why he is underlining the playful aspect of this direction, not just in talk but also song — “Only A Song” from the album, with its jazzy, breezy swing, urges the listener to get into the real spirit of things — with a memorable sax solo by Morrison himself.
“Why Are You On Facebook?” is another much-mocked song on the album, as easy target for its title and general lilt, but if you listen to it in the order it is placed on the album (the penultimate track), its spirit is easily apparent and it is actually very hard to not enjoy its bounce. The closing track “Jealousy”, with its exquisite instrumentation and direct lyrics, is another song with a target on its back, for the narcissism implied by the homogeneous outragers. Most of them have no clue that this is old territory — interestingly, in 1991, the opening track of the album Hymns to the Silence mined similar terrain — arguably the last time Van Morrison produced such a consistent collection of songs.
The most reviled song on the album is, predictably, “They Own The Media”, purely for the lyrics, of course. Musically, this is actually one of the finest tracks of the album, the clarity and precision of the instrumentation adding its own edge to the sentiment in the lyrics. Reviews and features have repeatedly dubbed Morrison as a “conspiracy theorist” over this song, contemptuously asking who “they” is (and elsewhere what “system” means), blissfully overlooking the irony of the homogeneity in not just the objection but its articulation. Anyone who has not been doing a Rip Van Winkle would be aware of the enormous debate in recent times about the homogeneity of hardline positions taken in media and academic circles, especially social justice concerns, due to a domination of such people in those spaces particularly in the US and the UK. Sidestepping utter absurdities (such as the accusation from a publication that this is an anti-semitic song because mostly Jews own the media), this is clearly about a specific mindset, not a specific entity.
For this pushback against that to find such musical expression is a big deal for a lot of people. It is not a coincidence that, despite the scathing reviews that make this the worst-reviewed album in Van Morrison’s career, this is selling better than any album of his in recent times and has actually charted in the top 5 in four countries already — the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden. The last time something similar happened with Morrison was in 1993, when it was a different world. Of course, this will be contemptuously dismissed by these same blinkered people as a sign of Morrison’s newly minted “right-wing” audience. It is interesting how the extremes overlap in both the Right and the Left — like a circular cycle.
This is actually what is amazing about the arrogance in how these people view the world. Everything is about ideology and justice for them, not quality (with “merit” being a bad word). They have enough self-confidence to freely demean and misrepresent one of the greatest artists of the previous century who has very obviously not lost his powers in this one yet. How much insularity does it take to give their innate mediocrity the benefit of doubt when they do this? Why do not enough people demand to know what worthwhile things these Woke people have created or been responsible for? Despite their self-delusion, is there even a single Woke artist worth anyone’s time in any discipline, outside their self-congratulatory circles? Why are musicians of their ilk, for example, invariably derivative or parodic or condemned to doing covers (which is consistent with regurgitating second-hand ideas imbued with nothing from them but their outrage)? With an accent on destruction and not creation, these people defile every space they are allowed to inhabit. A simple example in this flow itself — after this album came out, so many of these snowflake, half-witted vandals landed up on Youtube pages of Van Morrison’s most famous songs expressing their empty outrage that they’ve had to shut down comments on those pages!
And if you’re one of those who does not get the fuss about Van Morrison, or understand that why he’s rock and roll royalty, arguably the greatest and most enduring singer-songwriter ever after Bob Dylan, why Ireland’s president celebrated Morrison’s 75th birthday so publicly by reciting his words (despite Morrison actually being from Northern Ireland), here’s a tiny music appreciation capsule that could change your life, if you click on those links.
Van Morrison, aged 18, wrote this song for his Belfast-based band Them that became a worldwide hit, and stays a classic to this day. On the back of that song, Them made it big in America but Morrison left after doing just two albums with them, launching his solo career with this sunny smash hit at the age of 21, that many consider his signature song even now.
But unhappy with the stardom this brought and what was expected of him, he revolted by going inwards with a vengeance and produced the most searing song of his career, bar none, about a young girl dying from tuberculosis. This took him in a direction that defined the rest of his music career, an inward journey that has actually only just been broken.
At 23, Morrison released his finest work till date, one of the greatest albums in music history, the indefinably mystical Astral Weeks.
The rest of his career is represented by a song for each phase — back-to-back classics at age 24, rocking freely at 25, one of the greatest love songs of his generation at 26, while also pushing the envelope memorably at 27, excelling against prevailing trends at 29, taking rock to stunning new territory at 34, taking rock performance to the level of the spiritual at 35. Just to pause here to make a point. What Van Morrison had accomplished by age 35 (comparable perhaps to only what Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder did, as singer-songwriters, for range and impact) has more enduring value than the cumulative work of all the singer-songwriters in the world today below the age of 35 on public evidence. Besides emphasising his astonishing contribution by then, this is also about how that youthful energy seeking something new, taking risks, has relatively vanished today. (Which is why the song — “Where Have All The Rebels Gone”).
Morrison’s middle-period led him down spiritual paths, against all commercial grain, culminating in classics like this at 40, this at 43 and this at 44.
And coming up with much-loved songs like this at 42, a hugely famous middle-aged love song at 43 and underrated gems like this at 46, signifying a new direction coming.
For those who feel Van Morrison lost his powers after that, here are the consistent rebuttals — he has been creating great songs at every stage. This is him at 47 with John Lee Hooker. Or him at 49, providing a memorable soundtrack moment for an Oscar-winning film. Then, providing a stunning counterpoint to that very song at age 51. Celebrating his age joyfully, an “upbeat existentialism” at 53.
Not forgetting his musical roots at 56. Getting more playful with age at 59. Coming up with his finest song in years at 62, also perhaps his best song of this century. Writing and singing his age at 71. Creatively hungry and vital at 74.
If you just went through the above compressed journey, you’ll understand why thematically and sonically, Latest Record Project Volume 1 could be considered Van Morrison’s most extroverted album in his career. To even conceive of such a thing at age 75 is astounding, to pull it off with such aplomb, befitting a legendary status.
If you trust the media, mainstream or social, to tell you the truth anymore, even about the art available to you, you don’t need your brain anymore; you might as well donate it. Or you could try cultivating your eyes and ears a little more, free of noise, and make up your own mind.
One of the great paradoxes during this dumbed-down, less-than-mediocre time for artists is — whom do they create for? For an audience with a constantly shrinking attention-span, getting more and more incurious about trying new things? With a dishonest, unintelligent and even uncouth media obfuscating things even more? What irony there is in being forced to be bitter while dealing in so much beauty.