Soul is a word that is impossible to define, especially when describing music. Yet it’s always meant as a compliment, and, like many of life’s mysterious pleasures, it will move you. It’s also a word that, for more than 40 years now, has been connected with Van Morrison, and for some, he defines the term as magnificently as James Brown, Miles Davis or Aretha Franklin.
On his new album, Keep It Simple, Morrison seems intent on stripping away pretense and getting down to the starkest, most soulful aspect of what he does. The songs, in turn, work around the bare roots of blues, gospel, R&B, country and early rock ’n’ roll.
But despite its obvious intent, and despite its constant self-referential comments about getting down to what matters, the album rarely taps into the uplift—the transcendence—of Morrison at his best. It’s a record about soul music that flashes too little of it.
The problem may start in conception. The songs are so underdeveloped that it sounds as if Morrison went into the studio with a line or a thought, hoping to mine inspiration in the heat of the moment—something he’s done in the past with great reward. But this time the fruits of improvisation fall with a thud, unripened.
Few songs ever grow past the repetition of a few strung-together lines. Too often, he bases lyrics on the kind of throwaway clichés he’s often used for punctuation, such as “one monkey don’t stop no show” or “you make me holler when you shake it on down.” The lyrics tell no stories and offer few memorable images or phrases; worst yet, very little seems to evoke much emotion or passion, from him or from the listener.
Sadly, the vocals and arrangements are nearly as lazy. The Irishman has always mumbled—it’s part of his distinctive twist on the black vocal styles he’s drawn on to establish his own stunning vocal stamp. But here his slurs and asides don’t sound like the result of in-the-moment feeling; they sound tired and rote.
Even the best tunes are incomplete and not nearly as nourishing as they could have been. “End of the Land” sets out with an organ-based, gospel groove, something that brings out the flavor of Morrison’s low-key muttering. “Lover Come Back” features the album’s most developed song idea, and brings out his best vocal performance. In a bluesy moan, he mourns a lost relationship, conveying how the memory of better days dims everything in the present.
But both songs lose steam by falling back on a formula that weighs down every cut on the album: Morrison simply stops nurturing an idea by time he hits midsong. He never offers a fresh line after the first or second verses; instead, time after time, he repeats whatever he said in the first half. He even ends the album by repeating, “blah blah blah blah blah” for more than a minute. It sounds like a tape of ideas he hasn’t bothered to finish yet.
Several seeds present a potential bounty, had Morrison cultivated them. “School of Hard Knocks” begins as a scathing political protest, while “Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore” muses on the idea of how aging and burn-out impact the life of a musician or bon vivant. But each song wilts from repetition after the first verse.
Morrison has made as much memorable music as most anyone alive. As recently as 2005’s Magic Time, he’s created new work that lives up to his legacy. Simplicity has always been one of his virtues, but this time he takes the idea too seriously—or maybe not seriously enough.
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