The last time Van Morrison cut an album of original material, ˝Back on Top˝ (1999), he appeared to be letting the production overwhelm the songs.
Moving (once again) away from the soulful R&B inspired music that he’d rediscovered on 1997’s ˝The Healing Game˝, it appeared that Van was drifting back into soft (and soft-headed) overly-lush musical arrangements more appropriate for lite-jazz stations or retirement parties.
This new compilation shows Van back in stride - ˝Down the Road˝ is perhaps his best return to form since ˝Hymns to the Silence˝ (1991).
As on that great double album, Van taps into and invokes the musical hertiage that has powered his finest efforts over the past 30 years - the title track, a mid-tempo re-write of ˝Real Real Gone˝, ˝Hey Mr. DJ˝ which evokes the best of Sam Cooke, ˝PJ Proby˝, ˝The Beauty of the Days Gone By˝ and the final track ˝Fast Train˝ all reflect his continuing fascination with the soulful side of R&B and demonstrate his ability to construct tight compelling arrangements that add depth to traditional bluesy melodic structures.
His rendition of Carmichel’s ˝Georgia on My Mind˝ recalls his ˝Just a Close Walk with Thee˝ on ˝Silence˝ - Van wraps his growling voice around this standard and brings out all the yearning he can muster. It’s an amazing performance.
The high points on ˝Down the Road˝ probably aren’t as high as those on ˝The Healing Game˝: three tracks off that album - ˝Rough God Goes Riding˝, ˝Piper At the Gates of Dawn˝, and the title track stand as three of the finest songs he’s ever done. However, ˝Down the Road˝ avoids the lows of that album too - there’s no misfires here, nothing you want to skip over.
At first, Van appears to be simply retreading many of the old sounds and riffs he’s done before - ˝Choppin’ Wood˝ and ˝All Work and No Play˝ sound like bar-band standards - but the album has a cumulative power that resolves even the more derivative tracks into a cohesive whole.
The beauty of some of the final tracks - ˝Only a Dream˝, ˝Man Has to Struggle˝, and ˝Fast Train˝ especially - demonstrate Van’s unwillingness to allow his style to become formulaic.
All in all, a lively and lovely album - a revealing meditation on the unrecoverable past and the uncertainities of the future but without the moodiness that has characterized his earlier statements on this theme. Definitely recommended - especially for those long cross-country road trips you’ll be taking this summer.