Simple, Not Stupid

Van Morrison ventures back into the slipstream.

I was originally supposed to write about the new Van Morrison album, Keep It Simple (which was released April 1), a few weeks ago, when other deadlines got in the way. Then a funny thing happened: The characteristically modest yet meticulous Simple shot to number 10 on the Billboard 200, surpassing 1972's St. Dominic's Preview (which peaked at number 15) to become the highest-charting pop album of the Irish singer-songwriter's five-decade career.

Many of the (mostly positive) reviews thus far for Keep It Simple note that it is Morrison's first album of entirely new material since the superb Back on Top in 1999. Strictly speaking, that's true, though the 15-track Down the Road (2002) actually contained more original compositions (14, plus a cover of "Georgia on My Mind"). Moreover, little if anything about this "new" album will surprise anyone who has been paying attention to Morrison for the past dozen or so years. They'll already know he has shed most of the new-agey affect that had crept into his work of the late Eighties and early Nineties and taken listeners on a tour of his primary influences.

In fact the unknowing listener might easily mistake the opening blues shuffle, "How Can a Poor Boy," for an obscurity from the Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf songbooks. And even this critic could swear he once heard Gene Autry lend his voice to the winsome singing-cowboy paean "Song of Home." Elsewhere on the album, the homage is more direct, as when Morrison tips his hat to Duke Ellington and Bob Russell's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with the teetotaling "Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore." Later he makes a playful anagram — "That's Entrainment" — out of Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "That's Entertainment."

Of course, it's "entrainment" rather than mere "entertainment" that the Morrison faithful come looking for in those long, radio-unfriendly, stream-of-consciousness ballads, dense with personal and literary references, during which Morrison seems to fall into a trance. So it is not the least of Keep It Simple's accomplishments that it adds one trancelike classic-in-the-making to the Morrison repertoire: "Behind the Ritual," the album closer. It builds, gradually over seven minutes, into a rousing symphony of organ, sax, and gospel chorus as Morrison riffs endlessly on the title lyric before giving up on words altogether and bleating out a memorable verse of "blah"s. Like many of Morrison's best songs, this one points us toward a destination. But located where, exactly? I can't say for sure, but I'd wager that you could find it somewhere down the ancient highway, near a town called Paradise, and not far from the viaducts of Van Morrison's dreams.

 
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