Van Morrison’s past half-decade or so of recorded work has been as mystifying and fascinating as it’s been uneven. Unlike most of his 70’s singer-songwriter contemporaries, the 73 year-old’s output has only increased with age. The singer has sprinkled occasional moments of brilliance (see 2016’s Keep Me Singing) amongst a series of pseudo-combative musical statements and records whose winking titles (Reworking the Catalog, Versatile) convey their seemingly tossed-off nature. Not a surprising move from a guy who released a record called A Period of Transition, in 1977.
Morrison’s most recent efforts have tended towards some mix of jazz standards and interpretations of older originals. These records, as well-executed and occasionally expressive as they are, can also come across as so stubbornly self-interested that it can be hard not to view them as part of Morrison’s larger project of turning his late-career into a series of gestures of indifference, none more perverse than the fact that the legendary songwriter has included re-recordings of his 1993 instrumental filler “Close Enough For Jazz” on not one but two separate studio albums in just six years.
Enter The Prophet Speaks, the fourth jazz standard-heavy album Morrison has released in just 14 months. Of those four LPs, Van’s latest contains the highest number of fresh originals, with nearly half the album comprising new material. There are some genuine highlights: the breezy “Got To Go Where the Love Is” sounds like a lost 70’s R&B gem, and “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More” is a restless blues that finds old-man Van meditating on a life of musical worship.
Morrison once again uses his latest collection as an occasion to make a point about genre and influence. If Morrison has wanted to communicate anything, it’s that he’s able to write old-time originals that are mostly indistinguishable from the John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Solomon Burke covers they are nestled in between his own songs. It can still be moving to hear Morrison revert back to his primordial roots, to hear him still so innocently inspired and reverent of his idols despite the half-century worth of perspective he now brings to the material. On his cover of “Laughin and Clownin,” Morrison’s voice cracks and moans its way through Sam Cooke’s twilight blues, imbuing the song with a new profundity.
But aside from a few such moments,The Prophet Speaks feels like another headstrong gesture of self-determination from an artist has spent his entire career resisting terms like “singer-songwriter” and “rock music. Morrison’s latest is further proof that he’s still one of the most moving, unrivaled singers of his generation, but it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if he embraced his inner-mystic songwriting voice once more.