Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Van Morrison 29: The Healing Game

Nobody was expecting Van Morrison to take any big leaps outside his comfort zone, and people barely had time to learn to love one of his ‘90s albums until another one came out. The first few seconds of The Healing Game show promise; midtempo music in the easy jazz/new-age style he’d been treading in for years. His usual rotating set of supporting players help deliver more meditations on youth and God disguised as songs about ancient highways and golden autumn days.
“Rough God Goes Riding” is that first track, with good lyrics, backup singers that don’t overwhelm, and a well-constructed horn chart. But halfway through “Fire In The Belly” comes the sinker, in the form of Brian Kennedy, who either wasn’t allowed to read the lyrics before the take or figured to stick with his approach on echoing Van’s words a phrase behind. “This Weight” stays in the same smooth area, with that melodic hook in the chorus borrowed from “Here Comes The Knight”, “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1” and “Stepping Out Queen”. While not at long as the first two songs, there really wasn’t any need to repeat the one chorus line a cappella anywhere that’s not in front of an audience. Speaking of one-track minds, “Waiting Game” is a better duet with Kennedy, but this time Katie Kissoon is tasked with repeating each line. There’s even a moment where he forgets to take the harmonica out of his mouth before singing. “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” is the first real keeper, nicely colored by Paddy Moloney on pipes and flute (and for all you Floyd fans, it too takes inspiration from The Wind In The Willows).
It’s not until “Burning Ground” that the drummer’s allowed to use the whole kit again, but lest you think it’s another “Wavelength”, you’ve got to endure repetitive verses and a spoken section as baffling as it is convincing. It’s too bad, because the chorus, simple as it is, is catchy. “It Once Was My Life” has some of his old bark, but if you’ve ever heard the vocal arrangement on Iggy Pop’s “Success”, you’d rather take this off and put that on. It’s too bad, because this has potential, and with a tweaked arrangement (and fewer party noises) it could be one of his more memorable tunes. The same can be said for “Sometimes We Cry”, on par with his late-‘80s love songs, “If You Love Me”, which is awfully close to doo-wop, and the title track, which even incorporates “shoo-be-doo-wop” accents before a big, grand ending; all need to lose those backing vocals.
Van obviously put a lot of time into this album, and certainly the lyrics, and his voice is particularly engaged, so it can’t be completely written off. But while there may be people who adore The Healing Game, these ears can’t treat it as wallpaper, since too many moments refuse to be ignored.
Those adorers would be pleased about the eventual Deluxe Edition, which adds five B-sides to the main album, as well as a disc of “sessions and collaborations”—the former mostly absent of Brian Kennedy, and the latter with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Carl Perkins, and Lonnie Donegan, some of which had been out before. A third disc presents all it can fit of his 1997 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, including Brian Kennedy.

Van Morrison The Healing Game (1997)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1997, plus 1 extra track
2019 Deluxe Edition: same as 2008, plus 33 extra tracks

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