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Familiar Roads

 

Van Morrison: Down the Road

Universal, 2002

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: May 27, 2002

By Laurence Station

The danger of making a reflective or retrospective album is that an artist will come across as living in the past to the point of negating his own future. Rarely do such efforts pay off, either as attempts to recapture lost magic or effectively pay tribute to an artist's career highlights. Down the Road, Van Morrison's 33rd release, manages to pull off the tricky proposition of reflecting upon the music he grew up with while also offering up a strong set of fresh compositions that prove he's hardly ready to be put out to pasture.

The two clearest examples that Down the Road transcends merely recycling Morrison's record collection and enormous back catalog are Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on my Mind" (the album's sole cover) and Acker Bilk's "Evening Shadows" (its lone collaborative effort). On the former, Morrison informs the standard with such a deep sense of longing that when he bleats the line "No peace! No peace! No peace I find," he infuses the words with a refreshingly vital, gripping sense of urgency. On "Evening Shadows," Morrison adds his own complimentary lyrics to the popular instrumental, further highlighted by a clarinet solo by Bilk himself. It's just such a passionate approach that prevents this backwards-reaching album from seeming stale or cripplingly self-referential.

The opening title track serves as a statement of purpose, setting the tone for what follows -- Morrison's most consistent set of songs since 1979's subtly brilliant Into the Music. Clearly, the burden of being regarded as a living legend, so that the pressure to top oneself becomes near impossible, is a dilemma Morrison has spent some time pondering. But rather than trying to change with the time (imagine Morrison doing a duet with Fred Durst), Van the Man embraces his heritage, electing to celebrate the spiritual and terrestrial joy it's brought him through the years. His desire to feed his "lonesome homesick jones" with the music of his youth carries no hint of being out of touch; rather, it's a confident declaration, a yearning for the music that matters most to the man and has clearly inspired the artist.

The tender "Steal My Heart Away" proves to be Morrison's best ballad since "Have I Told You Lately," from 1989's Avalon Sunset. "Hey Mr. DJ" finds Morrison requesting a song he knows, smartly leading into the bluesy, rockin' "Talk is Cheap." "Choppin' Wood" offers up a classic character sketch of an itinerant Irishman who moves back home to Belfast after things don't pan out stateside. Lee Goodall's saxophone work proves especially effective, conveying a sense of lost momentum in a man who keeps plugging away despite a life of unrealized potential.

Down the Road's greatest strength comes from its center trio of songs, the questing "What Makes The Irish Heart Beat," the catchy, playful, alto sax-lead "All Work and No Play," and the fiery, confrontational "Whatever Happened to PJ Proby?" wherein Morrison sums up his feelings on the current state of music: "There's nothing to relate to anymore/Unless you want to be mediocre." While that line might be a bit harsh (especially if he's talking about more than the standard bought-and-paid-for Top 40 format), it remains consistent with his overall theme.

A few subpar tracks -- the bland "The Beauty of the Days Gone By" and the lyrically flat "Meet Me in the Indian Summer" -- are minor offenses to an album that ranks amongst Morrison's finest. For an artist who can boast of two bona-fide masterworks (1968's Astral Weeks and 1970's Moondance), Morrison proves with Down the Road that he might still be heavily influenced by his most fertile period, but has certainly not allowed it to bury him alive.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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