Van Morrison: The Prophet Speaks review – A master in his comfort zone

Fri, Dec 7, 2018, 05:00

   
 

Album:
The Prophet Speaks

Artist:
Van Morrison

Label:
Caroline International

Genre:
Jazz

“In the words of that great Northern Irish singer Van Morrison, it is time we all moved from the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road.” These words weren’t uttered by President Michael D Higgins, who in fairness probably would have picked a better song, but by that bumbling Brexiteer Boris Johnson at a recent DUP party conference.

Exactly half a century under the bridge since the release of the peerless classic Astral Weeks, an album that belongs in the pantheon of all-time greats, the evergreen appeal of Van the Man is stronger than ever, seemingly even among the most comically inept politicians of our times.

The Prophet Speaks is no less than Morrison’s 40th solo album. It is also his second of 2018, hot on the heels of You’re Driving Me Crazy in April, and two more albums in 2017; Roll with the Punches and Versatile. Mark E Smith and The Fall also used to churn out an album every six months or so, and Morrison is clearly in a very productive and prolific state of mind as he approaches his mid-70s.

In a recent rare interview, Morrison said the reason he used to bang out two albums a year during his 20s was simply to keep his head above water financially. Even though now he is one of the most lauded artists alive, and a multimillionaire to boot, his Protestant work ethic hasn’t diminished, despite claiming last year that he wouldn’t touch religion with a 10ft pole.

Like its recent forerunners, The Prophet Speaks is a pick’n’mix of jazz and blues classics, such as Sam Cooke’s Laughin’ and Clownin’, John Lee Hooker’s Dimples, Solomon Burke’s Gotta Get You Off My Mind and I Love the Life I Live by Willie Dixon, alongside six of Morrison’s new compositions.

This traditional aesthetic perfectly corresponds with his recent form as one of the most accomplished jazz buffs on the planet; right from the album’s opening bars on Gonna Send You Back to Where I Got You From by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, the listener is cocooned into Van’s jazz nirvana. The only thing missing is Louis Balfour from The Fast Show’s jazz club doing an aside of “nice” or “grrrreat” between tracks.

Morrison shares his late-career comfort zone with multi-instrumentalist Joey DeFrancesco and his band. DeFrancesco was Morrison’s co-writer on You’re Driving Me Crazy, and has worked with Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Jimmy Smith, among other icons. The rendition of Dimples by John Lee Hooker is the best of these offerings, while Gotta Go Where the Love Goes is a pleasant newbie.

Some may consider the title Ain’t Gonna Moan No More a bit rich considering Morrison’s reputation for belligerence, and it admittedly overstays its welcome over six meandering minutes. The Prophet Speaks weighs in at a hefty one hour and nearly nine minutes, possibly making the listener yearn for the relative brevity of Astral Weeks, Moondance or Saint Dominic’s Preview.

Yet unsurprisingly, the standards of musicianship are exemplary. There is no shadow of a doubt that we’re in the hands of true masters, and it is a pleasure and a privilege to luxuriate in some of this album’s better moments.

“When the prophet speaks, don’t need no explanation,” Morrison sings on the closing title track. At his imperial best, Van the Man can still be mystical and magical after all these years. Expect his 41st and 42nd albums to land before next Christmas.