Van Morrison poses the question in song, midway through this fine new album: “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?” The answer: Proby has a Web site. A U.S.-born singer who enjoyed a flash of British fame in the mid-Sixties, Proby now tells his tale and sells his wares on the Net, holding tight to his precious place in rock lore. Screaming Lord Sutch isn’t here to appreciate his name check in the second verse. An English rock pioneer and early employer of Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, Sutch died by his own hand in June 1999, forgotten by all but the most obsessive record collectors.
Morrison was fronting Them in Sutch’s and Proby’s heydays, and “Whatever Happened” — a noirish blues with a creeping-wolf rhythm — is a salute to lost and stranded peers, sung with pugnacious affection. It is also top Morrison, a biting indictment of pop today (“There’s nothing to relate to anymore/Unless you want to be mediocre”) and a personal statement of bulldog purpose: “Facing head-on and doing it my way.” Morrison spends the rest of Down the Road living up to that promise.
The cover shot of old R&B LPs in a shop window sums up the record’s reflective tug. “Hey Mr. DJ” is a requiem for the one-on-one electricity of pre-Clear Channel radio, swinging with sweet brass and the iconic echo of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party.” Morrison fondly evokes his own greatest hits, too: the Tupelo Honey-style waltz “Steal My Heart Away”; the Astral Weeks-like whisper of “The Beauty of Days Gone By.”
But when Morrison sings, he’s facing forward. “Down the Road” is cut from the same scar tissue and country-funk backbone as Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, right down to Morrison’s very Bob-like harmonica work. And in “Evening Shadows,” featuring the snake-charming clarinet of British jazzman Acker Bilk, Morrison turns his autumnal fire into spring fever, yearning for love with the potency of a man in the prime of life — and voice.