Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)

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NICK DERISO: “Whatever happened,” Van Morrison, erstwhile pop singer, old-soul blues gypsy, entertainer-slash-provocateur, sings here, “to the way it’s supposed to happen? And whatever happened to me?”

Much, in fact, has happened. Morrison, it’s worth noting, could have settled in as a fixture on pop music’s hit-machine dead end after scoring big with “Brown Eyed Girl” and the still-scrappy “Gloria,” bored us silly by lingering too long with the safe romance of “Have I Told You Lately?” or reversed field and hidden inside the retro-cool sounds of “Domino” and “Wild Night.”

Building upon early influences like Ray Charles and Solomon Burke, Morrison instead kept moving, kept adding elements — big-band horns, stream-of-conscious narrative, John Lee Hooker (embedded below), Georgie Fame, textures from his mystic Celtic roots.

“Down the Road,” as its name implies, finds Morrison in contemplative, if still biting, mood. He weaves in these many disparate threads — yet continues to growl with lasting authority. A return to form on par with 1991’s “Hymns to the Silence,” “Down the Road” is both an emotional and musical triumph — and it became Morrison’s highest-charting U.S. release since 1972’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview.”

“Play me songs for the lonely ones, play me something I know,” Morrison asks a disc jockey, even while lamenting later on “Man Has To Struggle” about how little time remains to ruminate in the digital age.

He complains about the state of things — “there’s nothing to relate to anymore, unless you want to be mediocre” — and talks some about old friends. But Morrison (who wrote all but one of the CD’s 15 tracks) has a fierce will to continue, to find purchase in a downloadable world that has no use for old-school little record shops like the one of the cover of this album.

He belts out the title of “The Beauty of The Days Gone By,” and shadows seem to fall all around, but Morrison won’t go quietly into that good night: “It brings a longing to my soul, to contemplate my own true self — and keep me young, as I grow old.”

There is much to love here: The title track is a pleasing shuffle, “Steal My Heart Away” updates a waltz style familiar to fans of “Tupelo Honey,” “All Work and No Play” feels like an instant crowd-pleaser and the aforementioned “Hey Mr. DJ” pleasantly recalls the late Sam Cooke.

Just like that, a “Fast Train” arrives to whisk Morrison away — though to where, of course, remains an echoing uncertainty: “And you keep moving on to the sound of the wheels … ain’t nobody here on your waveband. … Trying to get away from the past, keep on moving, keep on moving on a fast train.”

That’s the brash magic of Van Morrison, a searcher who thankfully takes us along for the ride.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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