There have been very few constants over the last 50 years. Life, after all, is really just a long series of changes and fluctuations. One thing that we have been able to count on however — outside of death and taxes — is the arrival of new music from Van Morrison. Every couple of years, the Irish singer-songwriter steps into a recording studio to lay down some new tracks to offer up to the masses. Sometimes its new material, sometimes its covers, sometimes its covers of his own old material like 2015’s Duets. Regardless of form, his albums consistently offer new windows into the mind and heart of one of the most enigmatic figures in modern pop/rock/folk history.
For his 36th studio album, Keep Me Singing, Van the Man has assembled a collection of 12 completely new and totally original songs to go along with a cover of the blues standard “Share Your Love With Me”, a song made famous by Aretha Franklin in 1970. The Irish balladeer is one of the few stratospheric personas (along with the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and maybe Bruce Springsteen) whose modern art is doomed to compete with their earliest work. We don’t expect Morrison to recreate Astral Weeks or Moondance, but we read deeply into the new material to pick out pertinent autobiographical threads. It’s hard to resist the urge to try and discover how he’s evolved from the young man of his most vital creative periods.
As a whole, Keep Me Singing is a record pierced with a severe, self-reflective melancholy. The angry youth of his “G-L-O-R-I-A / Gloria!” days is a distant memory. Morrison is no longer concerned with doing things “The Way Young Lovers Do”. Instead he seems more intrigued to explore the prospect of sustained longing like on the song “Every Time I See a River”, where he sings, “I can go days where nothing is wrong/ But it just doesn’t last very long.” Simple things like the sight of a river or the sound of a stream trigger memories of a love long lost. The same theme is explored two tracks later on “Out in the Cold Again”, where he laments being left stranded outside his paramour’s door. Inches of wood separate him from happiness, but it might as well be whole worlds away.
As a singer, it seems as if time has sanded away a lot of the grit in Morrison’s voice — which is an utter paradox. He’s not going to shoot off into the atmosphere the way he once did on “Caravan” or “Wild Night”, and instead remains at a cool midrange through most of the tracks. The subtleties in his delivery are far more discernible and the moments when he breaks out from his crooning demeanor to let it all hang out like on “Share Your Love With Me” or “Look Beyond the Hill” become truly thrilling. It’s an approach that marries perfectly with the saccharine melodies and laid-back jazz grooves that fill out the musical accompaniment behind.
And yet some things remain constant. To close out the album, Morrison, for the umpteenth time, evokes that magic word Caledonia on “Caledonia Swing”. Fans know that this single ancient word, which was the name that the Romans gave to the area now known as Scotland/Northern England, carries a lot of meaning for Morrison. Hell, he named his most famous band from the mid-1970s after it: The Caledonia Soul Orchestra. This one word might be the single totem that could unlock all the mysteries of the deepest corners of his mind. It could also just be a comfortable vocal tick. Regardless, the return to familiarity is a welcome one.
Essential Tracks: “Every Time I See a River”, “Look Beyond the Hill”, and “Share Your Love With Me”