The utopia of pure vocal-driven rock is all but dead. Now a barren wasteland, littered with the corpses of hackneyed crooners and always perilously close to the borderline of dreaded and soul destroying "adult contemporary, rock singing is beyond the brink. Then, when all hope seems lost, Van Morrison releases another record. After forty plus years in music, Van is still regarded by rock aficionados as the penultimate rock singer. Notice, I didn't evoke the dreaded "frontman" label. Morrison is a singer unlike any other of his generation. His voice is transcendent, lacking edges and coming out smooth and soulful every single time. Even the most flamboyant singer of the sixties was little more than a trapping to keep casual fans interested while the band behind him pursued whatever musical alchemy came to them in drug and booze fueled dreams. Van Morrison's voice did all of that and more, and unlike more recent pretenders to the throne of vocal ecstasy, he stayed rooted in the blues, soul, jazz, and American roots music on which he cut his teeth. Add to that a permeating spirit of his Irish upbringing, and you have a voice so unique that comparisons fail. All of that being said, Morrison's new album, Magic Time certainly carries on the legacy of Van the Man, but falls somewhat short of the "classic" status that can be conferred on many of his earlier works.
Some of the material on Magic Time feels so close to early Morrison, so close to the magic in the run of albums from "Astral Weeks" through "St. Dominic's Preview", that closing your eyes almost evokes that "wandering through Ireland" feel again. "Stranded", "Celtic New Year", and "Just Like Greta" all have that sensation to them. The wild, untamed energy, possessed of young lovers and Irish horses is lacking a little, but the vocal performances more than compensate. Other portions of the album veer from this course significantly. Vocal stylings closer to jazz and sort of Nuevo Swing take a chunk out of the first half of the record and do little to improve it. "This Love of Mine" and "Lonely and Blue" are prime examples. The performances aren't bad on the level of that Godforsaken musical abortion foisted on the musical world in three volumes by Rod Stewart in recent years, but they feel woefully corny. Even in the aforementioned tracks, however, the musical performances are spot on. Little horn sections and more instrumental passages bring the whole affair back to Earth and infuse in it a bluesiness that makes forgiveness a forgone conclusion. Piano and saxophone litter the album, giving it a nighttime kind of feel. It's defiantly not a record to wake up to, but late in the evening or late at night with a glass of whiskey at your elbow, there's nothing else to play.
Down the Road was probably a better album than Magic Time but it came as such a relief after years of decidedly downbeat albums, the comparison may not be entirely fair. Stocked with mysticism and soul, Magic Time is unmistakably a Van Morrison record. Beautiful songs like, "The Lion this Time" and "They Sold Me Out", raise up the heart and soul and the voice behind them keeps them above the Earth. Strings and subtle guitar work line the cloud in silver, and life is good. Less of the harder jazz and R&B makes it through to these performances, but they remain distinct from his early work with their extra dose of sentimentality and, although he explicitly denies it in the title track, "nostalgia" as well. Less country and Irish folk infuse the songs, but the tinges and coloring are still there, maintaining Van's unique character and charm. All in all it's a Van Morrison record, thank God. A year when an album of new Morrison magic arrives is a better year for it. Now, the sun is setting, so please excuse me while I fill my glass.