Even a man as implacably opposed to lockdown as Van Morrison – who spent 2020 releasing songs rubbishing science as “crooked facts”, mocking people for wearing masks and describing the government as “fascist bullies” while also invoking the Berlin Wall – might be forced to concede it had its advantages. After all, it gave him the time to write the material for Latest Record Project Volume 1, a 28-song, two-hour-plus opus that allows him to set out his latterday worldview more fully than any previous work.
Morrison’s longstanding sense of distrust – the result of some dubious contracts he signed in the 1960s – long ago calcified into a weltanschauung in which everyone was lying, with the exception of a certain Northern Irish singer. He’s sounded like a conspiracy theorist before – on 2005’s They Sold Me Out, he averred that being “sold out for a few shekels” was “the oldest story that’s ever been told”; “brainwashed the suckers again and perpetrated the myth,” he sang on 2008’s School of Hard Knocks, “propaganda far and wide” – but on Latest Record Project Volume 1, the sheeple are truly awoken.
It’s M15 this and mind-control that, secret “meetings in the forest”, mainstream media lies and Kool Aid being drunk by the gallon. On Western Man, there’s some troubling alt-right-y stuff about how the west’s “rewards” have been “stolen” by foreigners unknown and we should be “prepared to fight”. And he’s convinced that the shadowy forces of the establishment are engaged in efforts to silence him: “You have to be careful of everything you say”, “I’m a targeted individual”. The latter seems a fairly weird claim to make in the middle of a two-hour long album released by a major label: as far as can be ascertained, Sony is a multinational conglomerate with interests in banking and insurance, rather than an anarchist collective devoted to fearlessly speaking truth to power. Clearly the shadowy forces of the establishment need to up their game a bit.
This tinfoil millinery is interspersed with a variety of more predictable and even more enervating rants. These precisely replicate the experience of going back to your parents’ for lunch and discovering that – oh Christ – they’ve also invited Brian, their embittered old bore of a neighbour, who, as usual, has a couple of drinks and starts holding forth over the chicken chasseur. Social media is for idiots and anyone on it should get a life (Why Are You on Facebook?); modern music is awful and it’s all made on computers (Where Have All the Rebels Gone?); most of these so-called doctors don’t know what they’re talking about (Psychoanalysts’ Ball); say what you like about him, but Nigel Farage is a man of his word (Double Bind). Your parents have invited Brian because he’s been on his own since the divorce, and, with a crushing inevitability, you hear a lot about that as well: the iniquities of the legal process (The Long Con), and the injustice of handing over money to an ex-wife “too lazy to work” (No Good Deed Goes Unpunished). It seems a miracle there aren’t songs called These New Speed Bumps Outside the Primary School Are a Disgrace, The People I Got In to Do My Patio Were a Couple of Bloody Cowboys, and Have You Seen The Repair Shop? It’s the Only Thing Worth Watching These Days.
It’s an album you listen to while metaphorically pushing food around your plate and biting your tongue: there’s no point in saying anything back to Brian, because you’ll get a response like Only a Song, effectively an indignant splutter of “I’m just having my say” set to music. But in truth, it’s not really what he says so much as how he says it. The tone isn’t anything as stirring or exciting as anger, just endless peevish discontent and sneering dismissal, the latter reaching a peak with Jealousy, on which Morrison announces that anyone who disagrees with him is envious of his nonpareil insight into the way things really are: “I’m not a slave to the system like you.”
It’s worth noting that his voice and the music are both OK: default-setting late-period Morrison, heavy on the 12-bar blues, with a bit of country and southern soul thrown in. Something occasionally sparks, as when a Green Onions-ish Hammond organ introduces A Few Bars Early, or a Latin-American rhythm drives Diabolic Pressure along, but his band are hamstrung by a production that’s simultaneously antiseptic and muted. For all his hymning of music on Thank God for the Blues, you get the feeling that music isn’t the point here – your attention is meant to be focused on the words.
It’s a genuinely depressing listen, but at least there’s a kind of purpose here, even if it isn’t the purpose its creator intends. The album opens with the title track, which demands to know why people are more interested in Morrison’s work “from long ago” than what he’s doing now. Should anyone be wondering the same thing, Latest Record Project then answers said question in the most exhaustive detail imaginable.
What Alexis listened to this week
The Eli “Paperboy” Reed-produced quartet return: more old-fashioned gospel soul, still an untrammelled joy.