No guru, no method, no teacher, no tunes — like most of his recorded work this decade, the latest epistle from pop’s high priest of Celtic mysticism sounds on first approach like another meditative stroll through an outdoor folk-jazz chapel of Astral Weeks design. Serene hymns like “Oh the Warm Feeling” and “Foreign Window” are marvels of dynamic understatement. Morrison’s lyrical equations between spiritual devotion and earthly love are gently buoyed by drummer Baba Trunde’s feathery brushwork and the distant hosannas of a female backup quartet. It’s a fragile, familiar schematic, laid out over haunting, circular melodies airbrushed with acoustic guitars and often abruptly broken up by Morrison’s idiosyncratic vocal phrasing.
But the lakeside calm of this record is fraught with an unexpected tension. In the otherwise bucolic “A Town Called Paradise,” Morrison rips into the Springsteen-Seger generation of Van disciples (“Copycats ripped off my songs/Copycats ripped off my words/Copycats ripped off my melody”) with a venomous grumble that sounds like Mark Knopfler with a toothache. “Ivory Tower,” an upbeat whack of Stax & roll, is in turn a heated defense of his own uncommon art, not to mention the first real blast of prime “Domino”-style sing-along Morrison in some time. “Don’t you know the price that I have to pay,” he sings in the final verse, chewing on his words with righteous indignation. “Do you think that there’s nothing to it/You should try it sometime.”
In the end, though, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (a line from the sweet “Madame George”-like reverie “In the Garden”) is Morrison’s impatient declaration that his music is not to be confused with religious doctrine, a call to any particular altar. “Got to Go Back” reveals the spiritual core of Morrison’s work when he recalls schoolboy days communing with Ray Charles records after class — “Oh that love that was within me/You know it carried me through” — and ultimately it is that kind of elemental soul that resonates throughout this album. “Breathe it in all the way down,” Morrison instructs at one point in “Got to Go Back,” “and breathe it out with a radiance.” Then just bask in the glow.