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Deep Irish soul


Van Morrison’s music has been called many things over the years -- introspective, restless, reflective, poetic, serene, even spiritual. Though the latter of these terms can be loaded, it seems to fit Morrison’s artistic vision. His music oozes from a romantic Irish soul. He writes songs that stand the test of time and pay no mind to trendy pop culture revelations.

With his latest release, “Down the Road,” this Irish crooner offers up a collection of songs for the wanderer within everyone. Writer and pianist Ben Sidran writes in the album’s liner notes that “there is only one road, infinitely connected, like the grooves on an old record, endlessly leading away from home and back toward home at the same time. It’s all one long journey, and traveling is just what we do to stay alive.”

“Down the Road” is heavily laden with the rhythm and blues influences of Morrison’s youth. His mother was a jazz singer and his father a blues enthusiast.

Born George Ivan Morrison in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Aug. 31, 1945, he was playing guitar, saxophone and harmonica by age 11 in Irish dance halls with “skiffle” or jug bands. By 1960, Morrison had left school to pursue music as a career. In 1963, he formed a group called Them, which culled a fervent following as the house band at Belfast’s Maritime Hotel. They had a hit with the Big Joe Williams blues number “Baby Please Don’t Go,” and then “Here Comes the Night,” Morrison’s own composition, became the group’s first stateside hit in 1965, cracking the Top 40.

Soon after, Morrison found himself without a band. He had a string of hits and successful albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and though the albums still came during this decade, it was not until the late ’70s and early ’80s that Morrison seemed to find his second wind. During this time, Morrison’s writing style was contemplative and soul-searching. His 1978 “Into the Music” evoked a more spiritual perspective toward music.

In 1982, “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart” was released, followed by “A Sense of Wonder” in 1985 and “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” in 1986. Each of these albums was laden with themes of faith and healing, of poetic spirituality. “Avalon Sunset” in 1989 contained the U.K. Top 20 hit “Whenever God Shines His Light.” The albums “Enlightenment” and “Hymns to the Silence” followed shortly thereafter. “The Healing Game” arrived in 1997, and seemed to show signs of an introspective Morrison, an artist trying to interpret the life and the music he made over the past 30 years, but most notably throughout the ’80s.

Now, in a new millennium, Van Morrison has released a record that is nostalgic while at the same time forward thinking. What still drives Morrison’s music in 2002 are his affinity for American roots music and his own unique sense of soulful humanity. “Down the Road” marks a time when the artist is looking back on his many years as a troubadour, while barreling into new pastures and “trying to find [his] way back home … down the road of peace,” as he shares in the title track.

This introspection can also be found in “The Beauty of the Days Gone By”:

The beauty of the days gone by
It brings a longing to my soul,
To contemplate my own true self,
And keep me young as I grow old.

“Meet Me in the Indian Summer” is a tale of romance and longing using planetary imagery to illustrate limitless love:

It’s not bound by any definition
It isn’t written in the stars
It’s not limited like Saturn
Isn’t ruled by Mercury or Mars.

“Talk is Cheap” unfolds an amusing, upbeat blues argument, an ode to big mouths. Its opening stanzas reveal the cons of being an unnecessary blowhard:

Kicked your gift-horse in the teeth
Crowd gathered round in the street
You killed your savior, new one can’t be found
Talk is cheap, your savior’s highway bound.

“What Makes the Irish Heart Beat,” an anthem for the vagabond Irish, is as restless as the feel of this entire album:

All that trouble all that grief, That’s why I had to leave …
Oh so far away from home, But I know I’ve got to roam.
That’s what makes the Irish heart beat.

Morrison also sneaks in an old familiar standby, “Georgia on my Mind.” This rendition, its weeping saxophone and organ melded with his seasoned vocals, is the only track untouched by Morrison’s pen on “Down the Road.”

While Van Morrison has written volumes of moving, meaningful music over the years, he is modest about his craft. In a 1997 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Morrison underestimates the scope of his music and the effect he has on his listeners. “People talk about mystery. There’s no mystery about what I do. It’s straightforward.” Morrison weaves feeling and beauty into his songs, but he does not want to be pigeonholed as a guru of sorts. “Some of the songs might be mystic, but some of them are very non-mystical. Some of them are very brutal.”

“Down the Road” contains mystic Morrison tunes, yet it also contains lighthearted love songs, blues and catchy compositions. As always, Morrison is deep, but not all of his songs are as heavy as his romantic Irish soul.

Matt Stoulil is NCR layout assistant, a bass player and an avid observer of the music world. His e-mail address is mstoulil@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002