Keep It Simple
Douglas Heselgrave's #21 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by John Metzger
Mon April 28, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
It truly is impressive how effortlessly prolific Van Morrison has been over the years. While he has made his share of uneven endeavors, he has never really given birth to an outright awful one, and when he gets on a roll, he can be an utterly unstoppable force. Braiding jazz, blues, and soul textures together, Morrison long ago settled upon a framework for his songs, thus creating his own immediately identifiable sound. Although he has pitched from one side to the other as he moved from his folk-mystic masterpiece Astral Weeks to the collection of country covers he compiled for Pay the Devil, Morrison never has strayed from the path that he paved for himself to walk. It would be foolish, then, to think that, more than 40 years into his career, he would be even remotely interested in junking his history in order to spring a bold, new approach upon his fans. True to form, his latest endeavor Keep It Simple revisits all of his now-familiar touchstones, from Ray Charles to Sam Cooke.
In recent months, Morrison has placed a ridiculous number of retrospective sets on the market — including The Best of Van Morrison, Volume 3 and Still on Top. Within them, he has sliced and diced his albums in a variety of ways in order to highlight the variegated nuances of his catalogue. Yet, almost in spite of the never-ending stream of reminders of his many, wonderful accomplishments, Keep It Simple manages to shine. The music is fresh and vibrant, a product no doubt of the first-take presentation that Morrison opted to employ. When this looseness is combined with the heavy use of a revolving slate of background vocal trios as well as the heady Hammond B-3 organ sounds conjured by John Allair, the material often recalls the Jerry Garcia Band’s laid-back, gospel-soul luminescence.
Other than jettisoning the horns that have graced many of his recent albums, Morrison continues to work with a sizable backing band. Throughout Keep It Simple, he adds and subtracts the pieces he needs in order to conjure whatever mood he happens to want to create. Banjo, pedal steel, and mandolin sweep through Song of Home, while a guitar rises to the forefront of School of Hard Knocks. Nevertheless, his arrangements, for the most part, aren’t terribly complex, which leaves the bulk of the instrumentation lurking softly in the background, where it subtly shades, frames, and supports his soaring, impassioned vocals.
On paper, Keep It Simple is, at first glance, not one of Morrison’s stronger lyrical efforts, and this time, having the words to his songs spelled out in the accompanying booklet might not have been the wisest move. Over the course of the endeavor, he tosses one cliché after another, turning them around and around in a series of very repetitive verses that ruminate upon sobriety, spirituality, and the difficulties of making it through another day. When he’s on his game, though, Morrison could sing his way through the phone book and make it sound important, and he uses this parlor trick to transform the simplest of sentiments into message-laden mantras. Reading along with him, however, undermines the impact that they have.
Morrison is far less curmudgeonly than has been his custom of late, and by taking an indirect and non-confrontational approach to relaying his message, he cleverly succeeds in making his point more effectively. All of the phrases that he scatters throughout Keep It Simple — and all of the statements he has made in 40-odd years of work — are tied together quite neatly within the title tune as well as Behind the Ritual, the album’s expansive final track. There’s nary a song, here, that doesn’t urge the members of Western society to slow down and take pleasure in the wonders that surround them. The path to enlightenment, it seems, often is obscured by the clutter that surrounds the same daily routines that also can lead to salvation. ½
Of Further Interest...
Keep It Simple is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box