Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Keep it S(h)imple, Shtupid

OK, so I've heard from a few parties about my perhaps overly intellectualized analysis of Van Morrison's song, That's Entrainment, from his new album Keep It Simple. But that was just one way of writing about the record, and as I indicated in my post there is more to be said... This time, though, I'll try to heed Van's own advice and keep it simple.

Van Morrison's output over 4 decades is so massive that it is inevitable that there are repetitions, close similarities between individual songs, obvious influences from other artists, etc. This, on the other hand, need not be considered a weakness in Van's case: One would not consider Manet a lesser artist for the one reason that he kept revisiting the same subject canvas after canvas... Of course popular music with its mass distribution is not the same type of art as fine painting, and artists as diverse as Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade, who have little in common other than being extremely popular, have taken a lot of flak over the repetitive and voluminous nature of their production. Perhaps a similar jadedness due to overexposure is why some early customer reviews at Amazon were quite dismissive of Van's new album as repeating earlier songs and providing simplistic lyrics. I tend to disagree strongly with those uninformed opinions...

What I want to try here is to trace where Van is at and where he is coming from on this album. This could be thought of as a type of intertextual investigation in my academic discipline, cultural text studies, but I intend to keep it nonacademic this time around. Intend to, but no promises...

As a starting point I went to the nice Van Morrison News blog to see what people were saying about the new record. First thing I did was steal their signature Van caricature to use for this post - sorry folks, but I mean it as an honest tribute to your work... Next thing I noticed was the little poll fans can take there about which songs are their favourites from Keep It Simple, and although I don't usually like that sort of thing very much, I fell for the temptation to vote and - not least - see the aggregate results. I have four favourite tracks on the album: Soul, That's Entrainment, Keep It Simple, and Behind the Ritual, so I voted for those. I was somewhat torn when the aggregate results of 380 voters revealed that that is exactly what everybody else thinks too! On the one hand, it was a vindication that I was 'right' in some way, on the other I would have liked to be part of a more arcane elite who can 'see' things in a Van album that others cannot, so the slight let-down of being average stung a bit, too... Here are the results as of today: Ritual, 236 (62% of the voters had this on their list), Entrainment, 136, Simple, 133, Soul, 104...

Nonetheless, I want to say a few things even about the less loved tracks as well (I am quite fond of most of them, in fact): The album opener, How Can a Poor Boy, uses a lot of female back-up vocals, and the obvious association to songs outside Van's own repertoire to me is early Leonard Cohen, where jumpy songs such as So Long, Marianne use a similar arrangement. Likewise, both the title and the distinct use of female vocals clearly evoke Nick Drake's song Poor Boy, where the lyrics brayed by the back-up ladies in a mocking manner are "Poor Boy, so sorry for hisself..." Unique to Van's song, however, compared to Cohen and Drake, is his casting himself in the lyrics as a bluesy priest with congregation, flock, anointment etc. This continues Van's rather unfortunate trend to be messianic in his lyrics, perhaps best exemplified by They Sold Me Out from Magic Time where Van is the crucified Christ incarnate, whose robes are divided up among the Roman soldiers and the rest (himself) sold for "a few shekels more"...

I like School of Hard Knocks which continues the album, mostly because of its driving melody and Mick Green's slightly dirty guitar line snaking its way around Van's vocals. There is quite a dead-pan vocal delivery on Van's part, which always helps when he engages in a rant against the music industry, the Press, the fans etc. This type of lyric has become a staple on virtually every Van album from the nineties onward (Professional Jealousy, Big Time Operators, Songwriter, Look What the Good People Done, New Biography, Too Many Myths), and most fans are a little tired of Van griping about his hard career life. One should note that this is not a new theme in Van's production, not by a long shot... Think back to universally loved songs like Saint Dominic's Preview and its lines about the record company and the journalist waiting for sound bites:
And the restaurant tables are completely covered.
The record company has paid out for the wine.
You got everything in the world you ever wanted
Right about now your face should wear a smile.
That's the way it all should happen
When you're in, when you're in the state you're in;
You've got your pen and notebook ready,
I think it's about time, time for us to begin.
And we're over in a 52nd Street apartment,
Socializing with the wino few,
Just to be hip and get wet with the jet set.
But they're flying too high to see my point of view.
And of course there is an old favourite of mine: Drumshanbo Hustle which eventually came out on Philosopher's Stone. This is Van's best anti-corporation rant, and it's funny!

I think I've covered the significance of That's Entrainment pretty comprehensively in my previous post. I will just add that this track has a distinct first-take ambiance (note the live feel of the coda), perhaps with overdubbed hand-claps, but little else added post production. Again I love how Mick Green lets his guitar bleed into distortion for a few seconds before he sequences back into clean picking w. reverb. Van's ukulele (reported in early live performance reviews as a 'small guitar' - which is a bit like calling a cello a very large violin) is a fresh touch that keeps the rhythm section light and bouncy. Van did mandolins on Down the Road, so maybe we are working our way through all the 'small guitars' in the repertoire...

Quite a bit has been made out of Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore as a paean to senior citizenship and clean living. I don't much enjoy the slow jive type melody and rhythm Van uses here - it's too generic. But let's not forget the tribute element in the song: Jazz standard Don't Get Around Much Anymore is openly cited in the lyrics, and Van recently covered the similarly themed Lightnin' Hopkins song Stop Drinking (on What's Wrong with this Picture, 2003). In his own work, the drinking issue also surfaced much earlier, for instance Got to Go Back from No Guru: "Keep me away from whiskey and porter..."

Lover Come Back is a country nugget which shows what Van's previous Nashville album Pay the Devil could have been (but failed pretty miserably to be). At the same time the song and its arrangement harks back very clearly to Van's mid-80s albums, more specifically the Sense of Wonder, No Guru, Poetic Champions trilogy. The melody, its lilting chorus, the theme of return of the loved one, the humming of the background singers (mixed male and female voices) all resonate with those albums. There is also prominent organ work from John Allair whose stellar retro-Hammond playing adds significantly to the album throughout (Georgie Fame who put a distinct organ stamp on Van's 90s work seems to have gone for good from Van's recordings), and long-time collaborator on guitar, John Platania is also great to have back. And there is lovely pedal steel from Cindy Cashdollar to bring us full circle with that country feel...

Second stand-out track, Keep It Simple, does exactly what its title exhorts us all to do in life as in song-writing. Starting with ukulele strums, the songs builds and circles around its three chord structure. Mick Green goes on fire with distorted guitar in a short solo (I've never heard so much fuzzed-out guitar on a Van song, not even on recordings with Them), there is tasty accordion in the background, but it's Van's vocals that carry the melody forward as all other players are engaged in building the rhythm and the bottom. This must be a first take as well, and the oddest part of the track is that Van clearly sings with a lot of phlegm on his vocal chords. Most artists would have done another take (perhaps after a bit of porter and whiskey) but Van has kept this amazingly vulnerable expression of what the song's lyrics discuss: Keep it simple/And that's that!

End of the Land sounds like a late 90s semi-Celtic song, and Allair does his best Fame-imitation on Hammond to soothe us into a typical Van-lyric about seeking refuge in isolation, communing with nature. We've heard this sentiment and this melody many times before from Van from ca. Avalon Sunset and onwards through Enlightenment and Hymns to the Silence...

Another 'small guitar' gets to open Song of Home - this time a banjo, later supplemented with a mandolin. This again is country anthem time - a bit of gospel and a bit of Celtic harmonies (harbour lights and foghorns appear in the lyrics as echoes of Into the Mystic) are melded in for good measure. This is Ray Charles as a blue eyed Irish Baptist... Irish Heartbeat, One Irish Rover - songs of home are abundant in Van's back catalogue...

No Thing takes a bluesy stroll down pretty tired songlines about routines and repetitions in an aging man's hard working life... We cannot help but like the steel guitar, but the Nashville vocal harmonies that evoke 60s country (Anita Kerr Singers, anyone?) are an acquired taste. Van has been excavating his record collection again before he 'wrote' (channelled) this 'classic' sounding song.

The album draws to a close with two keepers: Soul and Ritual. A great couple... "Soul is a feeling deep within, soul is not the colour of your skin" - those are catchy opening lines to this mid-tempo ramble (broken by another great guitar rave-up by Mick) in which Van casually defines not just the genre of soul, but more profoundly (albeit essentialistically) the soul of man as "the essence from within, where everything begins..." Clocking in at three minutes thirty this is the hit single that obviously will never chart anywhere but in my dreams, but I must admit that this one hits me where it matters the most. It resonates. I already learned it by heart by the third play. Now I sing it aloud at unexpected moments usually misquoting the lyrics: Blue(s) is not the colour of your skin... This is also the first track on the album where Van breaks out his alto sax, and blows a trade mark solo. We have learned to love them, although when those solos first started appearing with regularity around Beautiful Visions and Inarticulate Speech in the early 80s I thought I would never quite settle with them... They seemed a distraction from what Van did best, but now they might be the show case for his best instrumental chops. Certainly, he stands his ground live with the best horn players around - usually the ones he brings on the road with him.

For closers we go Behind the Ritual to find the Spiritual. This song is simplified mastery on the melody side. We begin with a syncopated march time signature, then ringing tambourines and delicately picked guitar signal Van's entry as the Whirling Dervish, high on wine and days gone by. He has already calmly set the scene as that back alley we have been in many times before with Van, usually for jelly roll-related purposes. Here, however, it is clear that the wine is ceremonial, that getting out of our minds is motivated by the spiritual desire to speak in tongues, producing that sound - that jive- that no-one else can understand (it comes out literally as a scatted "blah-blah" for the first time in Van's recorded output (as it often has in live performances) enacting the mystical "speaking all out of our minds"). The song builds as a live tour-de-force, in the ancient manner we have come to expect from Van at least once on each album: Van blows his solo first on sax, the music grows to a full-force gale (call & response: Spiritual! Spin and turn!), then in ecstasy come the scat vocals, upon which Van and co. take it down to pianissimo, pare the sound down, and wind it all up with the simple ukulele chords... We got healed again, we found the spiritual, behind the ritual, in the days gone by.

Van has (as the cover photo signals) become "a man of granite, a man of insight". I am glad he still shares his insight with us and lets us enter into that rich tapestry of distilled influences and variations.

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