Although it doesn’t soar as unexpectedly high as last year’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, Van Morrison’s Poetic Champions Compose is another worthy installment in his series of soulful, meditative explorations. Unlike other aging pop performers who respond to changing tastes by desperately, aimlessly chasing trends, Morrison has retreated toward his deliberate Celtic muse, refining past achievements and digging deeper at the edges of his inspiration.
Still, the R&B elements — and almost all the uptempo leanings — in Morrison’s diverse mix of influences are barely implied on Poetic Champions Compose. And it doesn’t help that some of the song titles (“Queen of the Slipstream,” “Alan Watts Blues,” “Give Me My Rapture”) sound ripe for Morrison parodists. Some arrangements veer dangerously close to the insipidness of fusion, and the lyrics often establish situations or moods without resolving them (even if Morrison can still render the most banal lyric listenable). Two lyrics rise above this complacency: “I Forgot That Love Existed” is gorgeous devotion, and the traditional “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is trenchant despair. For once, Morrison is more successful on the instrumentals, especially “Spanish Steps,” which features his broad, sly alto sax; the three wordless tracks are beautiful listening but not easy listening.
Just because there’s no breakthrough on Poetic Champions Compose is no reason to dismiss it. As far back as Moondance, Morrison has traveled in small increments across albums, sketching in more details each time. Like Neil Young — another restless veteran who has been prematurely blackballed, only to persevere — Morrison follows his muse wherever he likes. And every time, those who have committed themselves to the journey have been rewarded.