From 1993’s “Big Time Operators” to the one-two punch of “They Sold Me Out” and “Carry On Regardless,” from 2005’s Magic Time, Van Morrison is no stranger to the fine art of the rant. The fact that these rants dwell primarily on Morrison’s own troubles with the music industry has only added to his reputation as a crank—albeit a crank whose enduring, transcendent work from the late ’60s and early ’70s rightly earns him three or four lifetime passes. To Morrison’s credit, his new album, Born To Sing: No Plan B, contains no overt tirades against all those big-time operators who are always trying to sell him out. Instead he doubles down—by taking on capitalism as a whole.
Tilting at windmills is exactly the kind of grand, romantic gesture Morrison has long extolled in song—as well as pursued in real life. Here, though, the windmill gets the best of him. “Money doesn’t make you fulfilled / Money’s just to pay the bills,” he mumbles magisterially in Born To Sing’s first song, “Open The Door (To Your Heart)”—which might be construed as a heartwarming sentiment if it weren’t for paranoid lines like, “Don’t you think I know who my enemies are?” Musically, the song is as clear as the lyrics are muddled, a simmering soul track whose chiming, rising guitar licks echo those of the Morrison classic “Wild Night.”
If the ranting ended there, the album would be stronger as a whole; “Going Down To Monte Carlo” lopes along in a loose jazz gait, evoking ghostly memories and hazy days, and the disc’s title track is a stately, swinging, Ray Charles-esque march that proudly asserts Morrison’s own hard-won struggle to become—humility be damned—one of the most lauded pop singers of all time. It’s thrilling to hear Morrison not only own it, but trumpet it. But by album’s end, the cynical “If In Money We Trust” sours things with a funky, minor-key vamp that serves only as a bucket for Morrison’s bile. While babbling about the human race’s fixation on money, he fails to realize the song is just as guilty. And when the album closes with the exhausted R&B of “Educating Archie”—which begins with the unlikeliest Morrison couplet of all time, “You’re a slave to the capitalist system / Which is ruled by the global elite”—it leaves a lingering aftertaste of bitter cliché.
The remainder of Born To Sing is salvaged by solid, serviceable, latter-day Morrison material like the dewy-eyed, instantly familiar “Mystic Of The East”—not to mention a remake of his 1993 instrumental “Close Enough For Jazz,” a summery, horn-spiked romp to which the singer adds a handful of breezy verses. His voice remains in sturdy form, all rumble and husk, and his once sinuous cadence feels wizened, not weakened, by the occasional arthritic crick. His band, meanwhile, is warm, organic, full of charm, and generous of soul. Not to mention subtle. If only Morrison himself could have managed that.