Keep It Simple: Album from the Mercurial Genius
For his debut on the Nashville-based Universal imprint Lost Highway the maestro of Belfast soul is… How can it be put without the cliche? We all know how tiresome the old “return to form” or “comeback” campaigns are when they are hoisted upon legendary artists. It’s the easy out to try to sell the record. It lets the critics and fans peel through the back catalog and figure out when the last time the artist has had a work so strong.
That’s the good news and bad news with Keep It Simple. What else can be said in this case? As much as we might try to resist it, this is a special album from the mercurial genius known as Van the Man. Often, his projects and performances have left his legions scratching heads and wondering what was up, surpassed in such acts over the years only by his old Woodstock neighbor Bob Dylan. The question: Why now is Van back so strong? Is there someone behind the scenes orchestrating some grand return?
Doubtful. Morrison has never kow-towed to demands or trends in music, so why now—in his 60s and on his 33rd solo album—would he start? There is no guru, no method, and no teacher to be found here. Ultimately, the proof of just who is in control and pulling the strings is right there in the credits: written, produced, played, and strongly sung by Morrison himself. As the album title might suggest, this is a collection of unfettered, uncomplicated blues and soul. It’s what Morrison has always excelled at, but often what made him special would get lost in weak material or careless execution. Here we have a set of songs immaculately played—with a sympathetic, crack band of pros—and recorded to sound more like Van’s heyday string of great albums. There’s not a track on Keep It Simple lacking in merit, from the warm gospel vibe of “The End of the Land” to the ambling country feel of “School of Hard Knocks” to the overall vintage Van-feel that pervades “That’s Entrainment,” “Song of Home,” and “Behind the Ritual.” Keep It Simple glows with a plainspoken, easy charm and incomparable delivery. Van Morrison doesn’t need to prove anything, but manages to here. “I’m not a legend in my own mind,” he proclaims on “Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore” but legends aren’t determined that way. Listening here, we clearly know what one is.