Just past the halfway point of his 25th album as a solo artist, Van Morrison offers a Vegas-like soft shoe called "Songwriter." It's his statement of purpose, codified in cringe-ola couplets: "I'm a songwriter, I can put it in words/I'm a songwriter, and it's not for the birds." If you've been moved by anything Morrison has done in the last 10 years, it's hard not to be discouraged: Why would Morrison, king of curmudgeonly cranks, feel compelled to add an extra helping of sanctimony to "I Write the Songs"?
Immediately following "Songwriter" comes a stunningly simple piece of introspection called "Days Like This" — classic Van Morrison, as though he knew he would need to atone pretty quickly. With its steady, churchgoing easiness, "Days Like This" is everything "Songwriter" is not: a gentle, understated gospel prayer invested with lyrical poise and old-soul insight. Here is the man who is concerned with soul healing and salvation, his every pronouncement buttressed by terse horns and firm piano triads. Here is the worshipful Irish aspirant to the soul throne.
One campy indulgence, one masterpiece: That's the general pattern on the bumpy Days Like This. There are moments of genius followed by lavish displays of questionable taste, sometimes within the same song. Though the mood doesn't shatter, the title track isn't exactly enhanced by Morrison's squawky, wobbly alto saxophone solo. Elsewhere, again proving that he's not the best judge of talent, he allows the two guest vocalists who trampled 1994's A Night in San Francisco to wander freely through his new material. Daughter Shana Morrison sings an odiously off-pitch duet with Dad on the Ray Charles classic "You Don't Know Me" and contributes hair-raising backing vocals to songs that didn't need any such help. And singer/songwriter Brian Kennedy worms his way into "Melancholia" and other selections simply by repeating Morrison's vocal phrases — a mindless echo. In a small, timid voice that's nearly buried in the mix, Kennedy sings with surplus earnestness until the lyrics, sometimes even the rather profound lyrics, are reduced to a gibberish-filled pingpong match.
Throughout, there's the sense that Morrison is trying to get back to that light, freewheeling sound of decades gone by — the Van Morrison of "Wild Night" and "Moondance," which seemed closer at hand on 1993's masterful Too Long in Exile. Instead, he selects a peppy faux-jazz celebration of love, "Perfect Fit," as an opener. This seems overweeningly cheerful at first — especially given everything we know about this brooding bard.
Gradually, "Fit" descends into the ruminative atmospheres that Morrison, alone among songwriters, sketches with unflinching accuracy. Quieter pieces like "Russian Roulette" and "Melancholia" capture the perpetually seeking Morrison in near-peak form, muttering to himself from some deep exile the world will never penetrate. On "No Religion," Morrison admits as much: "When I cleaned up my diction, I had nothing left to say." The other songs, if the words of "Songwriter" are to be believed, are merely what he does for a living.