Though he forever pines for his lost youth, drops the heaviest names in the arts-and-letters biz (this time out it's Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and the perennial James Joyce) and loses himself in obscure mystic reveries, Van Morrison has had trouble getting his vision to take flight for the past decade or so. Always an amazingly talented singer, Van has been relying too heavily on foolproof jazz-lite back-drops for his vocal gymnastics.
Too Long in Exile, his 22nd studio release, effortlessly continues this pattern. It swings, it ponders, but it never surprises. And the paranoia that has been creeping steadily into his music is dead center. "Too long in exile/Baby, those people just ain't, just ain't your friends," he sings on the opening title track, which leads into "Bigtime Operators," on which he insists, "They put a bug in my apartment/To listen in on my calls."
Fortunately, the album is peppered with covers that help alleviate these outbursts, and on those cuts, Van has a little fun. He gives Ray Charles his due with a hard-nosed rendition of Doc Pomus's "Lonely Avenue," shares the stage with guest star John Lee Hooker for a sweaty workout of Van's own "Gloria" and segues from Brook Benton's "I'Il Take Care of You" into his own "Tell Me What You Want" with unequaled grace.
However, with Van Morrison one desires more than a pleasant listening experience the least Van ever delivers. As everyone knows, certain Morrison recordings are nothing less than magical. It's the difference between Tupelo Honey, a good album, and St. Dominic's Preview, a great one.
Unfortunately, that magic also escapes compiler Mick Glossop on The Best of Van Morrison Volume Two. While containing a handful of inspired moments (of course), this collection too often seems arbitrary. Sandwiching two covers Morrison recorded with Them in the mid-'60s Hooker's "Don't Look Back" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" between a live "Rave On John Donne/Rave On Part Two" and "One Irish Rover," both from the '80s, is juxtaposition without context. It amplifies neither era and gives the compilation a tossed-off effect that contradicts Morrison's deliberate nature. Of the 13 tracks culled from Morrison's previous eight albums (nothing from his '70s stay at Warner Bros. is included), the highlights ("Real Real Gone," "In the Garden") sit uncomfortably next to the more languid tunes.
Whatever his faults, Van Morrison's music is always intensely personal. Scaling down his grand intentions into 15 quick doses does not present a coherent picture. That approach only serves to blur further what is already an elusive, difficult career to comprehend.