Van Morrison has Become Fat Elvis
Latest Record Project: Volume 1 — by Van Morrison (Release date 7 May 2021)
Sir Van Morrison‘s once Gloria-ous career is whirling down the sieve of a half-clogged drain.
His latest album release, a hastily-titled and stupendously cantankerous 28-song dumpster dive, Latest Record Project: Volume 1, is a painstaking endurance test of patience to absorb and a pitiful dissolution from the pinnacles of musical idolatry to witness.
It’s bloody awful.
Hearing Morrison’s latest bombast, we’re rubbernecking a car crash. We’re cringing at the final rants of Howard Beale scarily leering into the camera. We’re sighing at the sad spectacle of Willie Mays dropping fly balls in the outfield. We’re snickering at Marlon Brando struggling to mount an exhausted horse in The Missouri Breaks. Van has devolved into Fat Elvis. Correction: Make that a furious Fat Elvis consumed by paranoia and obsessed with conspiracies.
Van is now a self-parody.
Perhaps the downfall was to be expected. Even inevitable. All the arrows pointed in this direction. Van is, after all, the most prolific clot-clump of bitterness in the history of the music industry. That’s old news. Why else would a man who’s sold 50 million albums not have a major recording contract?
What makes this latest sad and sorry chapter of a checkerboard career most noteworthy — and now tabloidish — is that he’s still relevant at all at the ripe old age of 75. Bless Van Morrison for that. Bless his still-beating heart and bellowing saxophone. He’s even managed unwittingly to become a lightning rod in the divisive political debate of COVID and lockdowns. That’s really something of an accidental accomplishment given Morison’s tedious self-absorption and notorious hostility to publicity, the press, and disdain especially the music press. Unintentionally perhaps, he’s even become a champion of the “resistance-to-lockdown” movement. But Poetic Champions Compose, this album is most certainly not.
Latest Record Project: Volume 1, which is his 43rd solo album, comes across as dreadfully selfish and dangerously naive. Morrison, known for being incredulously dismissive of his own lyrics (“it’s just a song,” Morrison has often snapped during interviews prodding to know the inspiration for a ballad) dived head-first into a mosh pit of madness. Now, he’s carrying the torch. Prior to this album, he even released three singles, one with guitar legend Eric Clapton, a fellow passenger on the crazy conspiracy train.
Indeed, whatever one’s opinion of the pandemic and protocols, it does seem stunningly egomaniacal that the same singer-songwriter who so proudly hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland who never once penned a single lyric nor wrote any songs nor ever made any public pronouncement whatsoever about The Troubles — a 30-year hellish era of terror when Catholics and Protestants in his own backyard were blowing each other to smithereens — choose this moment finally to get political. Woah, folks…Morrison’s finally had enough! Poor Van. It wasn’t terrorism, nor the Irish civil war, nor global warming, nor economic inequity, nor any other political issue that triggered his angst. It was the outrage of having to mask up and being forbidden from going on tour. Oh, the horror.
Morrison’s public statements in recent months repeated in the album’s insidious song titles and clumsy lyrics aren’t just dumb. They’re insulting. They’re especially insulting to the millions who have died around the world from this terrible plague, undoubtedly made much, much worse by mass ignorance and resistance to authorities in science and the public sector. Gee, thanks, Van.
Of course, Morrison’s unfiltered cynicism and willingness to use his music as a personal complaint box have endeared him to millions, creating a cult following of “Vanatics.” Until now, count me among the group. 81 articles on Van Morrison written in the last year alone gives me some license here for outrage.
That he never caved in to commercial expectations and even loathed the fame that naturally comes with the territory of being a celebrity was, apart from his brilliance as a songwriter, his most redeeming trait. We admired the anti-social curmudgeon who somehow wrote an astonishing catalog of songs and recorded at least a dozen breathtaking albums while never considering himself too important. We overlooked his blistering contempt for it all, his own dismissive mumblings as to the meanings of his songs, and even his intentional insults whimsically hurled at his own fans because all he was on such a higher creative plateau.
But now, he’s just bitter and boring. Van the embarrassing family uncle sitting in the living room in the most comfortable chair in the house, wondering why no one wants to hear his aches and pains. No wonder so many fellow musicians are terrified of him.
Some of the songs are almost “Ringworm”-like. Recall Morrison’s astoundingly angry 1967 New York City Bang sessions when forced by contract to write several new songs by his recording company, recorded a baffling collection of utter garbage that was probably the greatest “fuck you” in the history of pop music.
Now, the song titles are equally bizarre and baffling: Where Have All the Rebels Gone? Psychoanalysts’ Ball. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. The Long Con. Tried to Do the Right Thing. Big Lie. Stop Bitching, Do Something. Jealousy. Why Are You on Facebook? They Own the Media.
Wait. There’s a song titled “Why Are You on Facebook?” and “They Own the Media?” Really? According to Morrison, who owns the media exactly? Giant corporations? The Jews? Robert Murdoch? Van, always classified as idiosyncratic, is in tin-foil hat territory, now.
What an astonishing waste of energy and talent he’s become. What artist at his age releases 7 (count ’em seven!) albums within a five-year stretch, mostly with fresh original material, and tours as extensively (when he could tour pre-COVID) as much as Morrison? Answer: Nobody. Billie Eilish couldn’t keep up with his pace, performance schedule, and output. And then he releases — this?
Perhaps this is just the tail end of a dog that stopped wagging a very long time ago. Each of Morrison’s joyless previous six albums since the magnificently underappreciated Born to Sing: No Plan B (2012) have all seemed rushed and uninspired. While the creative impulse and eagerness to jump into the studio unscripted is to be admired, recent albums have all sounded rushed — or as Morrison would insist, “spontaneous.”
But this album is a new creative and spiritual low, even for Morrison. From the music to the messaging, to the half-assed album cover that looks like the free sample artwork design from PicMonkey, Morrison almost seems to be testing the murky waters on how far he can go and how deep he can dive without jumping out of a cake and screaming it was all a giant gag. It’s as though he told whatever yes-men and sycophants around him too gutless to say anything or utter a word of protest — “hey now, watch this.”
Morrison has been down the victim road many times before. While those songs (“Professional Jealousy” and “They Sold Me Out,” to name only a few) were equally self-pitying, at least they were clever and well-orchestrated. We forgave Van for his quirky eccentricities, After all, Van the Man earned a few paybacks, and then some. We were only too glad to indulge his anger so long it was wrapped in a foot-tapping tempo and catchy melody. Preach, Van!
Yet, for a man who insists he’ll never become a nostalgia act (paging Fat Elvis), Morrison has committed perhaps his most glaring crime of hypocrisy of all in the overindulgence of so many scribbled songs that all sound very much the same. Latest Record Project: Volume 1 is not an album of protest, nor a collection of new original songs so much as a re-introduction to the stale repetition of 12-bar blues. Yes, I do love the blues. But not for all 28 songs. Yes, I marvel at the majesty of the Hammond organ which is another dimension for sensory experience, but can we please get a speck of the harp or violin on occasion? How about a harmonica, which Morrison routinely hammers for 55 years of stupendous exploration, yet here we get nothing. For the non-conforming artist who has arguably covered more musical territory than any popular songwriter in history and conquered such a wide instrumental landscape, one would expect a bit more breakaway.
No doubt, Morrison will tour as soon as he possibly can, and as uneven and impersonal as his live concert performances have become over the past decade, that’s still a good thing. Let’s give Morrison his due for somehow managing to stir controversy and remain in the spotlight. There’s a remarkable quality to Morrison’s endurance, as a musician and live performer that will continue to attract fans.
Nonetheless, rightfully admiring Morrison’s past work doesn’t merit fan worship nor blind praise for an album that will be remembered only as an embarrassment and self-footnote to an otherwise stellar career.
So, this was “Volume 1.” Please, Van — save what’s left of your amazing career and reputation. Don’t release a “Volume 2.”
Seems, I’m not alone in my disappointment and criticism. The reviews are as follows:
Pitchfork: It’s a Terrible Night for a Moondance
Musicoholics: Van Morrison vs. the Music Industry, Artists and Fans