Van Morrison is an enigmatic figure. Although he practices the art of a flamboyant soul trouper, he maintains an oddly detached, awkward stage presence. His vision is hermetic, his energy implosive; yet his vocation is public.
These are curious contradictions for a performer to sustain, but they help lend Morrison's art its resonance. His distinction lies in his fusion of a visceral intensity with an introspective lyric style — a potentially powerful amalgam owing as much to Bobby Bland as Bob Dylan. Although his lyrics have often been ludicrous, and his bands merely competent, Morrison's singing animates his material: Like Billy Stewart, the Sixties soul artist who scatted through "Summertime," Morrison is capable of dismembering a song, using the fragments for audacious vocal flights.
Morrison, however, is an inconsistent performer. His singing, at best fluent and assured, can become strained; his mannerisms, at best the hallmarks of a style, can become forced, unsettling like a movie out of synch; his lyrics, at best carrying the conviction of spontaneous creation, can become belabored, intentionally arty. Morrison in fact walks a thin line between pretense and passion.
Veedon Fleece, his newest studio disc, illustrates the pitfalls in Morrison's approach. With its splintered lyrics reiterated over swells of sound, the record's first side returns to the style of Astral Weeks. While this approach can be hypnotic, its recycling on Veedon Fleece flounders in Morrison's own cliches.
Throughout, Morrison suffers from wobbly pitch, several abortive experiments (the falsetto on "Who Was That Masked Man") and a familiar tendency to mumble rather than enunciate. Too often he suggests a pinched vocal nerve drowning in porridge.
The lyrics add to the tedium. Take "You Don't Pull No Punches but You Don't Push the River." Prominent lines include: "Going out in the country/Get right down to the real soul/Get down to the West Coast." Or: "We were contemplatin' William Blake and the Eternals."
This is pompous tripe. Van Morrison doesn't need it, and neither do we. How do you breathe soul into a phrase like "contemplatin' William Blake and the Eternals"?
The band is mostly composed of remnants from the ill-fated Caledonia Soul Express (Van and the group have since parted ways). The charts, scored for strings and woodwinds rather than horns, try for a dreamy, pseudo-jazz feel: Instead of punching Morrison along, the band lays back and meanders. The end product is mood music for mature hippies.
There are some exceptions. "Bulbs," launched by brushwork on the drums and clipped, almost countryesque guitar licks, features a forceful vocal. But the majority of Veedon Fleece lacks focus and drive: As a result the album sounds self-indulgent.
Morrison's current live material takes a different tack from that on Veedon Fleece. His new trio promises to add rhythmic kick to Morrison's act, and Van himself, when last seen, sang with guts and skill. Coming from anyone else, Veedon Fleece would merely be an embarrassment: Coming from Van Morrison, it seems more like another aberration in a fitfully inspired career.