It's a case of sweet and sour. First the sweet. For his 42nd studio album, stuffed with a bumper 28 tracks, Van Morrison has written some of his most compelling bluesy melodies in an age. And his voice, as he approaches his 76th birthday, is in fine shape, his timing and tone the mark of an artist still engaged, still eager to make his mark and prove his worth. He is in the groove, as indeed are his sizzling band with Richard Dunn's Hammond organ, the album's signature sound, a thing of wheezing beauty and joyful surprise. Likewise we swoon at the way the immaculately set backing vocals punctuate the arrangements and add colour and contrast to his voice.
And the sour? In the past few years Morrison has gone through the kind of public scrapes that could send the best of people off the rails. His 2018 divorce from socialite Michelle Rocca has clearly left painful open wounds and it doesn't feel like a healing is on the horizon. Then there is his anti-lockdown stance, which inspired three singles last year – in turn prompting Northern Ireland's health minister, Robin Swann, to write a critical opinion piece in Rolling Stone. "His words," said Swann, "will give great comfort to the conspiracy theorists – the tin foil hat brigade who crusade against masks and vaccines."
Well, those self-same theorists can now embrace Morrison as one of their own. On his website the album's over-riding theme is said to be "a straight-talking commentary on contemporary life". Morrison takes scattergun aim at the media ("They control everything you do"), Facebook, governments, lockdowns, "the system", psychoanalysts, failed relationships, the plight of "Western Man" and so on in a depressing litany of conspiracy tropes coloured by his sourness. While all artists are entitled to, and can be fuelled by, the bitterness of their experiences (witness Dylan et al), this just feels like petty point-scoring. Even the title track, weighed down by heavy-handed sarcasm, mocks fans for cleaving to his old material. He comes across as one sad and unhappy bunny, forced to rage against a world where No Good Deed Goes Unpunished though he has Tried to Do the Right Thing (back-to-back songs about his relationship).
Throughout the 28 tracks there is much to love in the music and the playing. However, the final track, Jealousy, signs off with a note of almost parodic self-pity: “Is it because I’m good at my job?” The answer, sadly, is yes and no.