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“Have you got my latest record project?” asks the king of Celtic soul on the title track to Latest Record Project Vol 1, his one in a million, straight-to-the-heart baritone sitting in the pocket of a warm organ hum and the sha-la-la doo wop from the backing singers. “Not something that I used to do. Not something you’re used to.” So begins a 28-track delve into Morrison’s ongoing love of the blues, R&B, jazz and soul, which forms the setting for his most dynamic and current album in years. Whatever Morrison may have achieved in the past, however much you may love his classic albums that gave the late 20th century its most transcendental moments, he’s living in the present. And he’s taking note of what’s been happening.
“I’m getting away from the perceived same songs, same albums all the time,” says Morrison. “This guy’s done 500 songs, maybe more, so hello? Why do you keep promoting the same ten? I’m trying to get out of the box.”
Morrison’s productivity is one of the more positive outcomes of our enforced period of isolation. Normally he would be on the road for much of the year, losing himself to the power of performance. With that taken away, he had to stay busy in other ways.
“I would never have written this much if we hadn’t been locked in. Normally I’d be travelling, which takes up a lot of time, and this is what was left to do. Sometimes I’m writing on piano, sometimes guitar, sometimes saxophone, and you don’t imagine the song right away. It’s a process of trial and error. You try different chords, rhythms and tempos, before you go: that’s how it’s going to work. And by the time I bring people in, I have something to show them.”
The secret to Latest Record Project Vol 1’s directness and vibrancy lies in the synchronicity that comes with having a band who know Morrison — and each other — well enough to lock into a groove. “The key is to have a rhythm section who can read me,” he explains. “It’s not just about having good musicians in a room because that can lead to personality conflict. When you have a rhythm section that can work together you’re ahead of the game, and the way I work is spontaneous and fast. The sessions for the album that included Brown Eyed Girl were done in a day because all the guys on it worked together. If you’re on the same page musically, if people like what they’re playing, you’re off.”
A standout product of this approach is Jealousy, a saxophone-led R&B gem about dealing with the things people say about you; their reasons for saying it is implied in the title. “I write songs from a 1950s concept: keep it simple,” says Morrison. “I let the lyrics tell the story.”
Elsewhere, Morrison engages in a straight-talking commentary on contemporary life that suits the immediacy of the music. Over the barroom rock’n’roll of Where Have All The Rebels Gone he bemoans the lack of real independent thought, so often replaced in the modern age by mere posturing. “Were they really all that tough, or was it just a PR stunt?” he asks. The Long Con sets smoky Chicago blues against a tale of a wanted man. “They want me to just go away and give up the fight,” he sings, that caramel and grit voice pulling out the deeper feeling beneath the apparent meaning of the words; “Well, I’m going to keep on fighting ’cos I’m fighting for my life.” The Carl Perkins rockabilly of Dead Beat Saturday Night lists the things we’ve all been going through for the past year: “No life, no gigs, no choice, no voice.” Stop Bitching, Do Something has a garage rock spirit recalling Morrison’s teenaged days leading Them, and the part he played in the British Blues movement, and a message as plain as its title. If you don’t like a situation, do something about it.
The joyful A Few Bars Early leans toward the country music world of too much fun on a Saturday night. “It seemed like a good concept, to come in a few bars early and relate it to a guy hanging out in a bar,” says Morrison. “Prince Buster’s Enjoy Yourself was a big hit when I was young, so I was combining thoughts of that song with hanging out in bars, where you lose all concept of time.”
As for Morrison’s views on social media, they are summed up on Why Are You On Facebook? “Why do you really care who’s trending?” he asks, not unreasonably.
“I remember when [Facebook] started,” he says. “There was a guy I know, putting up the message: ‘I’ve just left the restaurant. I’m on my motorcycle. I’m going to the next place. This is the hamburger I made.’ And I thought, what’s the point in this? It is the Andy Warhol thing that everybody should be famous for 15 minutes, carried to the extreme.”
Elsewhere he pulls out the romantic sentiment and late-night warmth that people have loved him for over the past half century. Tried To Do The Right Thing conveys equal parts affection and regret, as Morrison weighs up the gulf between intention and outcome that we all experience when love goes wrong. On the bittersweet jazz of Love Should Come With A Warning he sounds almost resigned to his fate as he laments: “I got this letter, cut just like a knife. Said, ‘I met somebody else. Why don’t you have a nice life?’”
Before we start wondering what has been going on to make him feel this way, it’s worth remembering that the lyrics for Love Should Come With A Warning are by the great Don Black. “It sounds like I wrote it, doesn’t it? That’s the mythology, that everything you do is about you, which is totally impossible. Especially when you’ve written hundreds of songs. I’m not that interesting to me.”
Morrison approached Don Black after hearing something in his 1969 pop ballad On Days Like These, as sung by Matt Monro for the soundtrack to The Italian Job, which reminded him of his own style. It led to Black writing, paradoxically, the most autobiographical song on the album. “You thought you knew me, but you were wrong,” sings Morrison on Mistaken Identity. “There’s more to me than my song.” It captures the burden of public image that every great singer has to deal with. As for the rollicking Double Agent, that’s about Morrison’s experience in the music business. “Because I’ve been like a spy that infiltrated it, unknowingly,” he says. “It is about me, but it is written as fiction. Throughout this album I’m observing and reporting.”
Latest Record Project Volume 1 is also a tribute to the blues, jazz, soul, R&B that Morrison has shown such a deep feeling for since discovering it as a Belfast teenager in the early 60s. “That’s my roots. Black American music is what I learn from.”
As to the sheer volume of songs on this double album, that comes back to the theme expressed in its title. If you want to really appreciate Van Morrison’s art listen to what he’s doing now, because he never stops. “There are 28 tracks here, but I recorded over 50,” he says. “I’ll probably put out another double album after this one.”
Remarkably, given that he has been making records for over 50 years, Van Morrison has made the most contemporary album of the year. Is there anyone else out there writing about current affairs in the same way?
“If there is, I’m not hearing it,” he concludes. “So much for protest music. I’m the only one left.”