It’s a mistake to hear the lush, immaculate textures of Van Morrison’s new album, Keep Me Singing, as pure easy listening, totally bereft of personality. On his first album for Caroline Records, and his thirty-sixth studio effort overall, The Belfast Cowboy may have aimed directly at the demographic that’s followed him since his solo career began in the late sixties and early Seventies, but chances are it won’t satisfy those fans of his who still dote on the earthy likes of Tupelo Honey, His Band & The Street Choir or the live It’s Too Late to Stop Now (and its recently-released sequel on CD & DVD).
It’s telling there’s no instrumental break to speak of, apart from its somewhat extended intro, to the ragtime jazz inflections on “Look Beyond the Hill.” This record isn’t so much formulaic as it is just plain safe. It’s not possible to genuinely criticize the musicianship of players like Dave Keary on guitar or Nicky Scott on bass, but there’s no sense of the unified precision of a band as on 2012’s Born To Sing: No Plan B). Meanwhile, the r string arrangements formulated by Fiachra Trench (who performed similar services on Enlightenment and Poetic Champions Compose), cushion the frontman’s largely temperate singing. Apart from the genuinely tranquil “Memory Lane” and “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword,” which has just a little more than a hint of the blues, this music regularly threatens to fade into the background.
Which is unfortunate because when it does, those nuances that imprint it with personal realism go with it. Even if his reading hasn’t the same emotional depth, Van Morrison may well have intended this version of “Share Your Love with Me,” as rightful homage to his late friend Richard Manuel who sang Bobby Bland’s song with such command on the Band’s Moondog Matinee. And the litany of references to San Francisco, jazz and the Beats on “In Tiburon,” speak directly to Morrison’s self-professed roots as a musician and songwriter.
What is ultimately so frustrating with the album is that, on the baker’s dozen tracks he’s produced here, Van the Man himself doesn’t sound like he’s deeply engaged. It’s almost as if Morrison isn’t inclined to embrace his emotions, but rather keep them at a distance, and these new original songs he’s composed, as well as his performances of them, follow suit. For instance, “Out in the Cold” is tame in its account of relationships in turmoil and the polished production doesn’t present an effective contrast to that angst any more than the sonic sheen in “Holy Guardian Angel” truly reflect its positive warmth.
But even though the lyrics such of the title song offer some knotty vision(s) in keeping with this artist’s irascible personality, Morrison doesn’t use his voice as an instrument, as he so loves to do live, to plumb the depths of emotion or scale the heights to feeling. Instead, for the better part of Keep Me Singing, he keeps himself in such reserve, he may not connect wither with his long-time devotees or those curious to know why he is an artist held in such high esteem.