The Healing Game

Not Rated

Van Morrison is the living embodiment of an old cliché: His voice is so good, you could listen to him singing the phone book. During the course of a 30-year solo career, he has crafted classic albums like Astral Weeks, Moondance and Into the Music. He has also chased his muse down innumerable blind alleys, turning his back on the audience both figuratively and literally. After 1995's Days Like This and the perversely cynical track "Songwriter," some longtime Morrisonians wondered whether it wasn't time for Van to actually give Ma Bell a spin.

Let's put that on hold for now. Though The Healing Game won't erase the years of dashed expectations, it should salve the wounds of frustrated fans. Morrison hasn't retreated from his spiritual quest or retracted his loathing of Information Age phonies. Maybe he has just remembered something: Graspable tunes and reasonable, cogent lyrics are a more efficient means of communicating than endless vamps and lofty sermonizing. The Healing Game's 10 songs adhere to pop structures while allowing him room to stretch his celebrated vocal cords. Morrison works the gruff low end of his register to great effect, especially; like a veteran blues belter, he's grown more authoritative with age.

At first the musical setting of The Healing Game recalls Moondance: jazzy guitar chords, gentle-yet-firm syncopation, horn charts centered on a warm, reedy baritone sax. But this is no retread: It's subtler, more autumnal. Morrison repeats lines hypnotically, stroking each word without obscuring its meaning, filling every syllable and sigh with suggestion. Without grandstanding or lapsing into self-consciousness, he summons the testimonial power of gospel and soul music — even if you don't exactly know what he's talking about.

All you have to do is hear Morrison describe his "fire in the belly" (on the song of the same name) over a smoldering groove, and you realize his flame is the kind that sparks indefinitely. "Burning Ground" illuminates the murky connections between the brief ecstasy of romantic love and the sustained joy of religious faith — whether or not you recognize the historical references to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. On the title track, he salutes the mysterious "homeboys" who croon "songs of praise" to an unnamed higher power. It's not hard to imagine devotees of the Babyface/Tony Rich school of acoustic soul discovering a kindred spirit here. After years of preaching to the converted, maybe Van the Man is ready to find a new flock. On The Healing Game, he sounds more than ready to meet them halfway.