Thursday, 16 August 2018
Van Morrison - Back On Top (1999)
Released March 1999
Recorded in Bath
A pugnacious Van Morrison declared himself to be "Back On Top" here, in 1999, and he saw out the old millennium by beginning with a vibrant, pulsating piece of pounding blues rock in the catchy "Goin' Down Geneva" which sees him on top gruff vocal form. Some searing guitar kicks in near the end. This is a great start. It has a great line "Vince Taylor used to live here, nobody's even heard of him..." referencing a little-known "cult" late fifties rocker. Van sounds really "up" for this album. It is pretty much a blues and r'n'b album, with a few upbeat rock'n'roll-ish cuts and some typical slow-paced reflective and romantic Morrison soulful numbers. There is not the jazz-influenced material that would come in the next few years, nor country-tinged songs. The punchy songs are very much blues-influenced as opposed to say "Celtic Soul", something he had pretty much left behind nine years previously.
After such a breakneck start, it soon becomes time to slow things down and we get the beautiful, laid-back tones of "The Philosopher's Stone". A melodic, stately piano and organ and some gentle percussion back Van as he "looks for the silver lining in the clouds", getting all mystical and searching - his "job is turning base metal into gold and he was born on the back street jelly roll...". The song is absolutely jam-packed with Van-isms, and some copper-bottomed blues harmonica too. "In The Midnight" is a gentle, soulful ballad, with Van again getting it dead right, vocally. "Back On Top" is a lively tuneful commercial blues number, featuring some classic harmonica and saxophone. Van moans of his feeling of "isolation at the top of the bill..." yet he states he is "back on top". It is what would comes to be a regular gripe of his - the price of fame and success. It is actually a somewhat arrogant song, but no matter, it sounds good.
Any arrogance is quickly diluted by the sensitive, tender and beautiful "When The Leaves Come Falling Down". Van evokes the changing of the seasons as he does so well - "...in September when the leaves come falling down...". My goodness, this sometimes irascible man can write some killer romantic, sad and meaningful songs. What a paradox he is, a mass of contradictions.
"High Summer" is very much a song that would have fitted in well on 1982's "Beautiful Vision". It has that soulful Morrison vibe. Listen to it, you will recognise instantly what I mean. The harmonica is delicious. "Reminds Me Of You" is an organ-driven slowie, with Van at his most yearning. Unfortunately, grumpy Morrison returns with the frankly ludicrous "New Biography", which sees him moaning about a new book written about him, and the misery of "the fame game". Give it a rest eh, Van? Put up with the book, I am sure you can, really. It is a catchy tune though! It has one hell of a saxophone solo part too. In true unpredictable fashion, next up is the impossibly addictive, singalong "Precious Time" that has Van almost losing himself in pleasure. The song is joyful and exhilarating. I remember my Wife and I managing to get ourselves right up to the front, near the stage, just as he played this at Battle Abbey, Sussex a few years back. I swear he smiled a couple of times while playing it. His saxophone is wonderful on it. (A brief aside about that live performance, just after "Precious Time" had finished, I saw and heard him bark "Brown Eyed Girl" at his band and he, incredibly, launched into the song he supposedly hates playing. Delivering it most enthusiastically. We certainly struck it lucky that night. The encores featured Chris Farlowe too, so doubly so).
"Golden Autumn Day" is a bizarre song to close the album. Musically, it is beautiful, with some killer saxophone and a sumptuous bass sound. Half the lyrics are about the beauty of a golden autumn day, the other half is about being mugged at knifepoint. It is strange, as most of Van's "golden autumn" songs are about the beauty of nature, here he transposes it with something disturbing, which is most unusual.
- August 16, 2018