Van Morrison has always been difficult to categorize. He straddles a line between Hank Williams, Sr. and William Blake; between W. B. Yeats and Muddy Waters. He’s Ireland’s rock and roll saint; a genuine rhythm and blues Rimbaud. He’s Jack Kerouac on the road to Belfast.
Looking back on Morrison’s long and storied career, it’s almost impossible to identify a single highlight. Some partisans will choose Astral Weeks, Van’s murmured farewell to childhood, and arguably one of the greatest albums ever made. Many will choose singles like “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Caravan,” “Tupelo Honey,” “Domino,” or “Wild Night.” Still others will point to late '70s masterpieces such as Wavelength or Into the Music. Some may even cast further back to the mid-sixties and Van’s involvement with Them, the great British Invasion band that produced “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.”
Whatever Van album (or incarnation) best suits you, the point is that between 1964 and 1980, few could touch Van Morrison either in terms of quality or consistency. He was both above and beyond the era of Album Oriented Rock, creating a genre that he shared with no other.
The '80s were a low point for Morrison, however. Following the release of 1980’s Common One, Van spent the next ten years churning out uneven albums. Even Van’s most steadfast followers began to lose faith. Only 1988’s Irish Heartbeat, a rollicking collaboration with the Chieftains, is undisputedly classic. During the 90s Van began to revive, and with 1999’s aptly titled Back on Top Van reasserted the qualities that made him a master in the 70s: Music that swung like hell combined with Morrison’s own jaundiced world-view. Last year’s Down the Road confirmed that Van’s renaissance was indeed in full swing. During this last year, Morrison switched labels and signed with Bruce Lundvall’s post-Norah Jones Blue Note Records. Some hard-core jazz fans scratched their heads at this, wondering why a legendary jazz label would sign an album rock relic like Morrison. Those of us who love jazz AND Van Morrison were inwardly pleased, and wondered what this outwardly unlikely pairing would produce.
What’s Wrong with this Picture is the result of this marriage, and it continues Van’s recent winning streak. While not a jazz album per se, What’s Wrong with this Picture is Morrison’s most overtly jazz-influenced album to date. It features a host of new Morrison compositions and two outstanding covers (“Stop Drinking” and “Saint James Infirmary”). It also features a host of wonderful instrumental performances from Van’s professional backing group. Matt Holland’s trumpet and flugelhorn solos enliven every track he appears on, most notably “Whinin’ Boy Moan,” “Evening In June,” and the aforementioned “Saint James Infirmary.” The cover art is equally magnificent. While Van has been invoking Reid Miles cover art for years (check out the covers to < I>The Skiffle Sessions and A Night In San Francisco ), the cover art for this album is his most affectionate tribute to a musical era than is clearly close to Van’s heart.
What’s Wrong with this Picture features some familiar Morrison themes. The simple life and “the days before rock n’ roll” are extolled on songs like “Somerset” and “Little Village.” On “Goldfish Bowl” Van reminds us that “jazz, blues and funk” are “not rock and roll.” While Van rails against celebrity on no fewer than four tracks, this is far from a bile-filled bitch-fest. As with his last album, < I>What’s Wrong with this Picture is full of good humor and genuine warmth. During the title track, Van uncharacteristically giggles mid-line. What it was that provoked his laughter, we’ll probably never know, but it is heartening that Van elected to put it on the record. Van is hardly kind and gentle, but by letting the mask slip ever so slightly, he reveals his humanity.
In the wake of their stunning success with Norah Jones, Blue Note has made a slew of high profile signing, including Terance Blanchard, Al Green, and Wynton Marsalis, in addition to Van. Blanchard’s Bounce was extremely satisfying, and Van’s debut for the label continues the trend. Green’s label debut, due out in November, looks equally tantalizing. Whatever one might have thought about Norah and her Grammy sweep, the results have been most satisfactory. Van has produced an album that is equal to his label’s reputation. Here’s to a long and fruitful collaboration between Morrison and Blue Note. Who knows? In twenty years, we might be looking at a Complete Van Morrison Blue Note Recordings box set on Mosaic. After this album, nothing would surprise me.
Label: Blue Note
Track Listing: What's Wrong With This Picture; Whinin' Boy Moan; Evening In June; Too Many Myths; Somerset; Meaning of Loneliness; Stop Drinking; Goldfish Bowl; Once in a Blue Moon; Saint James Infirmary; Little Village; Fame; Get On With The Show.
Personnel: Van Morrison, vocals, acoustic guitar, alto saxophone; Keith Donald, bass clarinet; Foggy Lyttle, electric bass, electric guitar, vocals; David Hayes, bass, vocals; Liam Bradley, drums, vocals; Matt Holland, trumpet, flugelhorn; Martin Winning, tenor saxophone; Richard Dunn, organ; Ned Edwards, electric & acoustic guitar, vocals; Bobby Irwin, drums; Alan "Sticky" Wicket, congas; Gavin Povey, piano; Acker Bilk, clarinet; Lee Goodall, alto saxophone; Pete Hurley, bass; Mick Green, elecric guitar; Fiachra Trench, piano; Johnny Scott, electric guitar; Nicky Scott, bass.