The duets album is often a stroke session that involves a minimum of thought — but not for Van Morrison. Duets is as cantankerous and eccentric as any of the man’s other projects. Rather than just bring in a few glossy names to decorate his greatest hits, he digs up deep cuts from mostly overlooked albums. (You won’t find anything from Moondance or Astral Weeks here.) And his partners range from grizzled vets — Steve Winwood, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal — to surprise guests like Natalie Cole, Mark Knopfler and Michael Bublé. Even if the artists probably figured they were signing on for “Into the Mystic” or “Tupelo Honey” karaoke, they rise to the Van challenge, helping him rescue songs that only die-hards know.
He opens Duets with the late Bobby Womack on a searing “Some Peace of Mind,” from the 1991 album Hymns to the Silence, and Staples sounds raw and weathered on 1970’s “Lord, If I Ever Needed Someone.” Knopfler’s voice and guitar seem right at home in “Irish Heartbeat,” just as George Benson’s smooth-jazz touch lifts “Higher Than the World.” But the surreal highlight comes when Van teams up with Mick Hucknall — that’s right, the dude from Simply Red. He torches up the poetic Celt ramble “Streets of Arklow,” from the unjustly forgotten 1974 cult classic Veedon Fleece. It’s a gem that only could have been imagined by a crank of Morrison’s brilliance. That’s what makes Duets more than a tribute to the obscure corners of his songbook or his undimmed growl — it’s a tribute to his pugnacity.