At 75, Van Morrison has made the longest and best album of a hall-of-fame career. He’s never written more acerbically, he’s never had a better band behind him and his voice is undiminished. Over the course of the 28 tracks on his Latest Record Project No. 1 – streaming at Spotify – the godfather of Celtic soul never loses his sense of humor despite tackling some serious-as-death topics. Case in point: Breaking the Spell, one of the album’s most upbeat tracks. “I’ll be staying in the country til the military dream’s in flames…they’re ringing the bell, but I’m not so obedient,” Morrison relates, full of cheer and determination. And he wants the girl to go up and pay him a visit. It’s a thinly veiled protest song that you can dance to.
Several of the other songs here are much less thinly veiled, or not at all, but you can dance to many of those too. Morrison has timed this perfectly to capitalize on the never-ending 60s soul revival, and nobody does it better. The songs are relentlessly catchy, slyly aphoristic, and disarmingly straightforward without being preachy. The oldschool 70s-style production is period-perfect, with low-key, tasteful organ and piano, occasional horns or sha-la-las from the backup singers, plus congas along with the usual rock rhythm section. Morrison also distinguishes himself with his bright, purposeful alto sax work. If Joe Strummer had been a soul singer, he would have made this record. You could call this magnum opus Morrison’s Sandinista.
In the first song on the second disc, the briskly pulsing Double Agent, Morrison calls out his fellow celebs for their cowardice in failing to stand up to plandemic totalitarianism. “Some drink the koolaid, some did the right thing, but some moved on over to the dark side,” Morrison accuses. Over the jangly one-chord roadhouse vamp of Where Have All the Rebels Gone, Morrison ponders, “Why don’t they come out of the woodwork now? One for the money, two for the show, it’s not very rock n roll.”
The album’s funniest track is Why Are You on Facebook? Over the band’s Highway 61 jangle, Morrison taunts the social media-obsessed:
Why do you need secondhand friends?
Why do you care what is trending
Or is it something that you’re defending?
You kiss the girls and run away
Then you won’t come out to play
Morrison goes after cancel culture in The Long Con, a shuffle blues. He pokes cynical fun at the record industry in the album’s blithely swinging title track, and has a good laugh at the expense of the 90s therapy meme and those that followed in the otherwise amiably swaying anthem Psychoanalysts’ Ball: “Can we say that you’re clinically insane?”
Mass formation and brainwashing by the corporate media are persistent themes here. “Stop listening to the mainstream media.” Morrison warns in the lush, gorgeous Blue Funk: it’s Morrison’s The Thrill Is Gone.
The best song on the album is Double Bind, a slow, slinky minor-key tune fueled by organ and Rhodes electric piano:
It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind
You have to be careful of everything you say
But it’s all by design
That’s why we have to break the double bind
Duper’s Delight, a pulsing midtempo ballad, could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” The backstory gets even more sinister in He’s Not the Kingpin: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” Morrison explains
He’s assembled a first-class, semi-rotating cast of musicians behind him. Richard Dunn excels on gospel-infused organ and blues piano. Dave Keary adds banjo along with layers of guitar in the upbeat but ominously aphoristic Up County Down, and later in the scrambling mid-60s Dylanesque Western Man, an eloquent look at the price of liberty being eternal vigilance (and the consequences of failing to do so.) And his chord-chopping guitar intro to the triumphant My Time After Awhile – where Morrison observes that “99 out of a hundred people just can’t be wrong” – is one of the album’s high points.
Throughout the record, Morrison is at the peak of his game as a lyricist. The minor key blues A Few Bars Early is a prime example:
I was in jukebox alley when I went to make my move
Couldn’t see very clearly but then I snapped back in the groove
I was a few bars early when I had my very last drink
And you said play that song Later Than You Think
The ending, where everything comes crashing down, is spot-on.
Morrison has fun with amateurs out on a Deadbeat Saturday Night, where “It’s more pricks than kicks, the hicks from the sticks don’t know what makes them tick.” And he wraps up the album with a wise, knowing, vintage Allen Toussaint-style New Orleans soul hit, Jealousy, beefed up with a balmy Muscle Shoals arrangement. It could be a simple dis at wannabes, or it could have more global ramifications. Either way, Morrison wants everybody to know that “I’m not a slave to the system like you.” Although there’s nothing here as corrosive as his late-2020 singles, like No More Lockdown, this is the best rock, or soul, or blues album of 2021.