Like the white middle class it entertains, rock music exhibits a certain rootlessness, a lack of a living history. This is rock’s greatest asset — it is spontaneous and free, contemporary and temporary — but it can also be a liability. The ever-recurrent rock revivals and our fondness for golden oldies express the absence of a past, the very word “revival” indicating that the past is dead. Many artists are exploring that past, but the then and the now are so disjunct that more often than not such efforts are camp, lifeless, effete and irrelevant, or crudely exploitative.
Van Morrison, one of the few (Roger McGuinn and the Band are others) for whom the American musical tradition is passionate and alive, loves this tradition with the insight and fervor of a foreigner. There’s no more zealous flag-waver than a citizen by adoption (it’s significant that all but one member of the Band are Canadian). Morrison’s ardor doesn’t require him to imitate the past; his music is so suffused with it, that everything he writes and sings expresses and interprets the past in light of the present, and the present in light of the past.
Because Morrison’s music continues an ongoing tradition, it is never diverted by faddish ephemera and never becomes dated. With no Their Satanic Majesties Request to live down, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, his 11th album including two he did with Them, celebrates the entirety of Morrison’s career. And unlike Bob Dylan’s recent tour, for example, these recordings are not a mere remembrance of things past. Even the album’s title impels us forward and all of the material, from “Gloria” to “Saint Dominic’s Preview” is very much alive.
A third of the album, the standards, show where his music comes from: blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and soul. Note rock’s omission: Morrison is closer to Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ray Charles (whose “I Believe to My Soul” he performs here) than he is to rock. The oldies and his own songs are of a piece equally vibrant, revealing Morrison as at once a great traditionalist and an original talent: traditionalist because of his roots, original because he never stops growing — It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
Yet Morrison has never enjoyed the mass popularity he deserves. This is partly because he stands quite deliberately outside the pop/rock mainstream, but more importantly because of his relative indifference to lyrics.
On Astral Weeks he tried to write purposefully but ended up with poetastery and parodies. Recently he again tried to write purposefully, but with only intermittent success, most notably “Saint Dominic’s Preview.” Words seldom interest Morrison except as sounds, and without this in mind you’ll be confused when he babbles “sodomysodomysodomy.” He’s just messing around with the words “inside of me.” Having nothing to say, with only emotions to express, his songs must be felt, not thought about. What matter are the stops and starts, the twists and turns, the splutters, the scats and the yowls. Morrison battles with words, distending them, gutting them, forsaking them altogether, as if they blocked the pure sound and the pure feeling toward which he strains. Now even Mick Jagger, one of Morrison’s early models, imitates him.
Yet Morrison is not a rock but a jazz singer, hooked on rhythm and sound. He swings and he improvises, which is more in the spirit of jazz than rock. Morrison’s problem is that the pop audience demands more than a singer; it wants not just a voice, but a pop personality to fill up the gaps between albums and appearances, something which Morrison has never fabricated.
On It’s Too Late Morrison’s voice is in fine form, but much else is not. The lavish packaging is unnecessary, and the mix is quirky. Bill Atwood’s trumpet should be prominent on “Wild Children,” for example, but it’s scarcely audible. On several tracks the guitar is under-recorded. And a string quintet which accompanies some of the numbers is often thin and rather shabbily genteel. Occasionally they sparkle (the string arrangement of “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” is witty), but generally they’re superfluous.
The other musicians, most of whom have played with Morrison many times before, never detract, but Morrison could be better served. I wish, for instance, that pianist Jef Labes’s left hand would occasionally stray below middle C and give the music more bottom. Guitarist John Platania is perfectly competent but a little stiff — the ideal guitarist would be limber and fluent, like Morrison’s vocals. Jack Schroer’s saxophone is stalwart but unexceptional. These shortcomings, however, are nothing new; Morrison has usually preferred to play with comfortable friends rather than with comparably talented musicians.
But the power of Morrison’s vocals overcomes these drawbacks. He attacks “Warm Love” (which on Hard Nose the Highway seemed sweet and innocuous) so fiercely that it becomes an altogether new and far more impressive song. By double-timing the verses he similarly transforms “Here Comes the Night.” His version of “I Believe to My Soul,” if it misses the haunting gloom of the original, has a stunning dramatic force. Through three sides of the album Morrison’s energy never flags, not even during the long and arduous “Saint Dominic’s Preview” and “Listen to the Lion.” Only on the fourth side does the intensity dissipate as he overindulges in protracted fooling around. But more than an hour’s music is crammed into the preceding sides, and it would be churlish to demand more. The man has given so much.