If you believe, as I do, that Van Morrison is one of the three or four greatest singers of his generation, any new recording of his is a welcome arrival. All the pleasures of his singing are evident on his latest release, Born to Sing: No Plan B: that fat tone that shifts from silky purr to raspy growl as the drama in each song demands, that superb control of phrasing that functions as both grooving drummer and blowing saxophone, and those astonishing codas where he improvises unexpected variations on everything he’s just sung.
Suppose, however, that you take a saner approach to record collecting than this writer. Suppose, for example, that you don’t believe you need more than 40 Van Morrison albums. Suppose you only want 10. Should this be one of them? No way. Suppose you want 20 Van Morrison albums. Should this one be included? No again. While Born to Sing: No Plan B might be considered a triumphant comeback for Rod Stewart or an artistic breakthrough for Harry Connick Jr., it is merely a disappointing footnote in Morrison’s career.
Like any great singer, Morrison can overcome weak material and a weak band, but he can overcome them only so much. And this album finds him singing with the weakest band of his career. The horns have intonation and timbre problems even as they attempt their predictable solos; the rhythm section merely props up the groove rather than pushing it along. Morrison wrote all 10 of the songs himself, but he’s operating in his least appealing modes: the curmudgeon yelling at kids to get off his lawn and the new-age mystic offering hoary clichés. And the melodies sit lazily and unadventurously on the blues changes. It’s a testament to his vocal abilities that he makes this unpromising material sound as good as it does.
How perfunctory is the songwriting? Well, on the title track he rhymes “singing the blues” with “paying them dues.” Need I say more? On “Educating Archie,” named after a British sitcom and alluding to America’s Archie Bunker, he lectures his straw man, “You’re a slave to the capitalist system, which is ruled by the global elite.” Even if you agree with those sentiments, you probably don’t want to hear such hectoring in a sashaying New Orleans blues. Morrison is better off when he takes one line, even a line as hackneyed as the title from “Open the Door (To Your Heart),” and repeats it dozens of times until the sound of the words becomes more important than the meaning, and he can twist and turn that sound to his heart’s content.
Born to Sing is Morrison’s second album for Blue Note Records, although he released five albums on other labels after the first one, 2003’s What’s Wrong With This Picture? These collaborations with the legendary jazz label raise the question: To what extent is Morrison a jazz artist? Like his two biggest influences, Ray Charles and Mose Allison, Morrison blurs genre boundaries by borrowing musical vocabulary from jazz, blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and country whenever inclined and commanding those inflections with authority. His jazz influences, like Allison’s, are resolutely pre-bop and blues-drenched, echoing most obviously Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Rushing.
For someone who claims to disdain musical categories, however, Morrison seems strangely obsessed with them. On his new album, he criticizes a restaurant for playing “some kind of phony pseudo jazz” and, in a later song, declares, “If there’s room to move your elbows, then it’s close enough for jazz.” On “Goldfish Bowl” from the first Blue Note album, he proclaims, “I’m singing jazz, blues and funk; baby, that’s not rock ‘n’ roll.” Excuse me, sir, but that is rock ‘n’ roll, the ultimate mongrel genre.
If music fans are to have the freedom to discuss their favorite records, they need to have words like “jazz” and “rock ‘n’ roll” to facilitate that discussion, no matter how artists try to censor the conversation. And any such honest discussion would have to conclude that Morrison is a rock ‘n’ roll singer with a major blues influence and a minor but significant trad-jazz influence.