Van Morrison / Back On Top (Archives, 1999)

“Brown-Eyed Girl” and grumpiness — the two inescapable collars that fans and media have hung around Van Morrison’s neck, weighing heavy all these many years.

On this, his best record in some time, Morrison has shaken off those twin shackles. But if the music provides a walking tour around the favorite parts of Morrison’s musical estate, the lyrics are hardly carefree. Uniformly introspective, even when they’re happy, they’re weary.

Loose, Tight, Minor Gripes

The most appealing aspect of Back On Top is its utterly unforced sound. Gone are the trends — forays into jazz, overproduction, religious overtones — of too many releases. Except for an out-of-place electric guitar on “Goin’ Down Geneva”, Morrison sings over ensemble playing that achieves the elusive balance of being tight and loose. Strings, horns, and harmonies drop in but never overstay their welcome.

Lyrically, Morrison’s Romanticism comes through, from Keats references to titles like “When The Leaves Come Falling Down”, “High Summer”, and “Golden Autumn Day”. Classic buzzwords, from “wavelength” to “jelly roll”, show up, and he complains about fame (“New Biography”) but mercifully keeps it to a minimum.

A curious lament for obscure rockabilly singer Vince Taylor (“Goin’ Down Geneva”), sincerety cutting through gruffness to disarming affect, is the latest chapter in Morrison’s mission to namecheck his influences. Also puzzling by its timing is the ambling “Philosopher’s Stone” for surfacing a year after the record of that name, a la Houses Of The Holy.

But if Morrison is still far from predictable, he’s not completely inscrutable, either. Musically, he sounds more at home than ever. Vocally, he’s in great shape. Yet Back On Top remains the sound of a melancholy twilight, Van enjoying a setting sun without forgetting what follows.

Ultimately, he knows that soul is about delivering what’s real. Perhaps he’s far from the carefree boy of “Brown-Eyed Girl”, but it’s also too late to stop now.

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