CD Review of Keep It Simple by Van Morrison
Recommended if you like
The Band, Dr. John, Boz Scaggs
Label
Lost Highway
Van Morrison:
Keep It Simple

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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The rut I was in had once been a groove,” admitted Nick Lowe in a line from “Rocky Road,” a track on his 1990 Party of One album – and though Van Morrison didn’t write the song, he probably should have, because it does a nice job of summing up the ongoing argument surrounding his late-period work. Since reasserting himself as one of rock’s finest songwriters with a late ‘80s/early ‘90s run of terrific albums that included the classic Chieftains collaboration Irish Heartbeat and the double LP Hymns to the Silence, Morrison has peeled off an astonishing number of releases – more than a dozen, not counting live albums, since 1991 – none of which have come anywhere near his best work. Quite the contrary: Morrison’s been seemingly content to pop out a new record every year or two, each time shuffling a few steps up or down the folk/jazz/blues/country axis he’s maintained for decades.

So is Van in a rut, or just grooving? Nobody knows for sure – perhaps not even Van, and even if he does know, he probably doesn’t care. Which is not to say he doesn’t care about the music, of course – only that he’s never given the appearance of someone who sees much purpose in intellectualizing or analyzing his songs. It’s easy to understand, really – why expend the effort when you’ve got armies of fans and critics eager to do it for you? It’s much easier to be inscrutable.

“Easy” is a pretty good one-word description of Keep It Simple, actually; Van runs down these 11 tracks with the air of someone who has one eyebrow arched and one eye on the door, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to any of his recent albums. Morrison’s perpetual offhandedness would be annoying a lot more often than it is if it hadn’t always been a core element of his repertoire; even during his heyday, he frequently sounded bored with himself. The only difference is that back then, he was covering new ground – at this point, there’s nothing Morrison hasn’t done at least twice.

This doesn’t make Simple a bad album – just one that lives up to its title. These are simple songs that revisit themes Morrison has expounded on, repeatedly and at great length, throughout his career: Irritation at being misunderstood, annoyance at the non-believers, contempt for consumer culture, and a desire to, yes, keep it simple. There isn’t a single moment that could justifiably be considered essential for anyone – not even the most ardent Van Morrison fan – which makes perfect sense, when you think about it, because Morrison has never seemed to make his albums for anyone but himself. That might sound like a bad thing, but if you value integrity in your rock & roll, Morrison’s dogged pursuit of the muse should be a source of comfort. It may not make for particularly exciting songwriting – especially during moments like the closing stretch of this album’s last track, “Behind the Ritual,” when Morrison repeats the word “blah” 30 times in lieu of actual lyrics – but it’s certainly simple.

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