Music

Van Morrison Explains It All for You

Van Morrison performs at the 41st Montreux Jazz Festival in 2007. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
A pop genius’s political poetry sets the record straight.

Van Morrison’s new three-LP album Latest Record Project, Volume 1 is so radical — so out of fashion, it’s ahead of fashion — that it also recalls the most widely celebrated album from exactly 40 years ago: The Clash’s punk-reggae-rap lollapalooza, their triple LP Sandinista!

The Clash’s overt political pop was dedicated to peer-pressure attitudes that define rock-music hipness. Morrison, at age 75, is no longer considered “hip,” but Latest Record Project, Volume 1 proves bolder than Sandinista! because Morrison’s emotional-political drive dares oppose genuine political conformity, the COVID lockdowns of the past year.

Throughout 28 tracks, Morrison effectively challenges the current junta (politicians across the globe having usurped social power thanks to COVID and by other unmentionable means). It’s an expansive album but consistently focused on the topsy-turvy political non-thinking that has changed Millennial life. Morrison knows that the emotional turmoil we’ve suffered over the past year, through media compliance and pseudo “science,” requires ethical and aesthetic reassessment. And like Michael Jackson’s inspiring “Man in the Mirror,” Morrison starts with himself.

Morrison’s title song begins simply: A soulful organ reveals “Not something that I used to do / Not something that you’re used to.” Rather than Morrison’s usual soul-pop, a female chorus’s “Sha-la-la-la” conveys a sense of humor; Morrison is not taking himself overly seriously. Transcending the false piety of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, borrowing a bit of Morrissey’s agitator wit, he sings “in the present.” He means both right now and, hopefully, what a sane future will look back on with admiration.

Unlike The Clash’s Kommunism for Kids, which praised Nicaragua’s Communists as a gesture of punk righteousness, Morrison offers the good sense and individuality of the blues. (Besides, nobody listens to Sandinista! anymore.)

On “Thank God for the Blues,” Morrison’s blues-tense goes “Sing it for me, sing it for you / Sing it for the people who feel the way I do,” simplifying his blues-politics into the distinct expression of formerly marginalized people. His natural empathy makes up for the fact that those people now have been gulled into mistaking their period of widest acceptance, visibility, and power for a moment of neglect. Through the blues, Morrison refers to the consciousness of spiritually motivated black people who thought and felt for themselves — and made art about it.

Yet, Morrison realizes pop is ephemeral (“Only a Song” reasons, “It’s not set in stone / It’s only a poem”), and that’s what makes this album’s political and artistic stance so brave; it’s of the moment. And in this moment, mainstream media have become almost completely unreliable, a tool of secret class war where empowered people feel entitled to tell the rest of us how to live. Van replays that point tastily, using blues licks to make bullet points:

** “Where Have all the Rebels Gone?” states the cultural problem, plus uses a toe-tapping beat. Take that, Pete Seeger!

** “The Long Con” is where Van lifts the scales from his eyes. The song’s intellectual burden could as well have been sung by Leadbelly swinging his prison-gang sledgehammer.

** “Duper’s Delight” exposes the duplicity of romantic and political betrayal. (“They’re running rings around you / Cuz they’re trying to confound you.”) Repeating the phrase “You don’t know this,” Morrison nearly enters his famous ecstatic transport. I dedicate the track to Michelle Obama.

** “Jealousy” answers his political critics: “I’m not a slave to the system like you. . . . I made it in spite of you,” but sung so gently there’s no bitterness.

** “Psychoanalyst’s Ball” is where the album expands to deal with the roots of the derangement syndrome that has overtaken the Left. Morrison connects Freud and Marx with New Age religious habit.

** “Blue Funk” confesses “I fell into a blue funk, get myself out of the mire / Not preaching to the choir, move up a little higher / Stop listening to the mainstream media junk, look how far we’ve sunk.”

** “Double Bind” zeroes in on media hegemony: “It’s opposite of what they say / Cuz they know people are really prey.”

Sharpest of all is “Why Are You on Facebook?” Here, Morrison breaks down social-media interdependence and insecurity. It’s a question few dare ask. (“Are you looking for a scapegoat to blame? /Are you a failure again?” is very Morrissey.) Cardi B, Adele, Ed Sheeran, and Shawn Mendes won’t ask, since they depend on social media.

Morrison’s ideological detractors at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Pitchfork won’t admit that the album is very easy listening, like Dylan’s overlooked Trumpian Rough and Rowdy Ways. On “My Time After a While,” Morrison employs a “ring-a-ding-ding” that rivals Sinatra’s smooth testicular fortitude — something John Legend’s soyboy fans know nothing about. They’re not listening and they’re not thinking. They want conformity.

A backbone of feeling and community (as in the Irish ethnic “Up County Down”) links the entire album. Morrison sings free of his own legend yet is more himself than ever — and ahead of his famous imitators. “Western Man” describes the collapse of our institutions and shames Springsteen’s useless Western Stars album. The lyric “While he was dreaming / Others were scheming” bests Neil Young’s 9/11 album Are You Passionate? and then some.

Morrison’s radical artistry angers leftist reviewers because he clearly is not lost in their world of white liberal blues fetishism and political condescension. He offers the finest deconstruction of the music and media system since Joni Mitchell’s “starmaker machinery” line in “Free Man in Paris.” Latest Record Project, Volume 1 deconstructs the process that liberals take for granted as theirs only — not yours and not for anyone who disagrees with them politically. The genius who made Astral Weeks, who can sing the phone book and still be compelling, feels betrayed by all those who claim to care about art and freedom but who, really, simply are sheeple. Semioticians everywhere should praise the title track alone, except they’re too busy teaching Marxism along with semiotics.

When Morrison says, “Follow the media / What’s their agenda / How do they frame it / How do they name it,” he’s opposing everything Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno said about “The Cultural Industry” in Dialectical Enlightenment (1947). But he’s now ignored in order to facilitate the social-justice zealots and an industry that prefers the lost, childish warblings of Billie Eilish and, worse, the political preening of Taylor Swift.

The gestalt of Latest Music Project, Volume 1 is to sing against the global push toward socialism. Meanwhile, the juvenile justice pop reviewers don’t even know what “dialectical enlightenment” is. Morrison proves that the beauty of freedom of speech is not just in what you say but how you say it.

The joy in Morrison’s voice is the joy of making music that communicates. This is true, rich protest. If it’s pamphleteering, that’s preferable to the usual pop garbage — what Chuck D once called “sex for profit.” Morrison doesn’t need the innovative arrangements Joe Chiccarelli brings to Morrissey’s oppositional work. “Only a Song” reminds us, “It could be back to front only to make it work / Get it to jump, get it to swing, so I can sing it.” Such modesty befits a visionary artist.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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