It would be hard to imagine a more natural merger of pop and folk than this collaboration between Van Morrison and Ireland’s preeminent oldwave traditional band, the Chieftains. Yet even those expectations don’t prepare one for the splendor and intense beauty of Irish Heartbeat, a collection of ballads that finds both acts at the top of their form. It’s no coincidence that Morrison chose to re-record “Celtic Ray” (from 1982’s Beautiful Vision) for this album: after his recent series of frustratingly opaque records, which merged themes of spiritual yearning with music that meandered between jazz and New Age, the line “I’ve been away from the Ray too long” takes on a significance it never had before.
Never hokey and always affecting, Irish Heartbeat taps into the melancholy, deeply spiritual side of the Irish heritage, in which centuries-old music is more than a way of life; it is life. In “Carrickfergus,” a homesick old drifter prepares to die; in the Gaelic “Tá Mo Chleamhnas Déanta (My Match It Is Made),” a man searching for his true love learns she has “crossed the ocean.” Even brighter songs like “My Lagan Love” and the oft-recorded “She Moved Through the Fair” are as overcast as an Irish afternoon.
The collaboration benefits both parties. Whether buzzing like a bagpipe on “Celtic Ray” or singing a jaunty jig like “I’ll Tell Me Ma,” Morrison sounds more relaxed than usual; “Raglan Road” is a vocal tour de force that progresses from a hushed, urgent tone to a rush of melismatic phrasing. The Chieftains, who’ve approached parlor-music tedium on recent recordings, sound unusually frisky on “Marie’s Wedding” and “Star of the County Down.”
The album’s musical and lyrical themes converge in the title song, which originally appeared on Morrison’s 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. What was once a minor track on a relatively minor album is given a new context, and the song, a meditation on the ties that bind, opens up and breathes for the first time. Toward the end, the placid arrangement builds to a swell of fiddles and tin whistles, and Morrison, lost in reverie, starts scatting. Rarely has such a small moment symbolized so much.