Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Van Morrison 31: Back On Top

A switch of labels meant that yet again, a new Van Morrison CD was touted as “a return to his classic sound!” Even the title Back On Top suggests wishful thinking, and while the album did okay chartwise, a lot of that had to do with the promotional push—Point Blank being a blues-based label distributed by Virgin.
Indeed, the opening “Goin’ Down Geneva” is a pretty dirty blues, far away from the smooth jazz of recent years. “Philosopher’s Stone” immediately hits the brakes, suggesting not so much the quest for alchemy but a pointed reference to the previous year’s archival release, and sure enough Brian Kennedy is right there on top of the mix, where he’ll sit for the rest of the album. “In The Midnight” is even quieter, with a tasty Mick Green guitar solo, and thankfully Brian Kennedy doesn’t turn up until the very end. The title track packs a little more punch, thanks to Pee Wee Ellis on sax, but then it’s another meditation about “When The Leaves Come Falling Down”. It’s pretty, but he’d already proved the thesis 13 years earlier.
“High Summer” turns the clock back a few months, and finds our hero with the harmonica stuck in his mouth and mumbling the lyrics. “Reminds Me Of You” hearkens back to mid-‘60s soul, a decent hymn of heartbreak ruined, again, by Brian Kennedy. Right when we think he’s keeping the complaints about show business to a minimum, “New Biography” is a direct hit on an actual book that had been published, with lots of spitting p’s and his first recorded acknowledgment of the Internet. More Sam Cooke-isms color “Precious Time”, which crams several clichés into an admittedly snappy tune. And just as the first half ended, the finale comes with a midtempo reverie on a “Golden Autumn Day”. (We checked carefully, but found no reference to any garden wet with rain.) The last few moments of the album, which focus on the simple strings arrangement, are lovely.
There’s more life than usual on Back On Top, and the energy helps a lot, where other albums merely crawled along. One can almost forgive Brian Kennedy.

Van Morrison Back On Top (1999)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1999, plus 2 extra tracks

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