One of the most fascinating commentaries on the work of Van Morrison has to be from John Paul Lederach. Lederach is a visionary author and practitioner in the fields of conflict transformation and peace building. Not the common or in the garden place to find a chapter on Van Morrison.
Yet, in his book When Blood and Bones Cry Out; Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation that is what we get. Chapter 8 is called Following The Healing Muse and is fascinating in that it comes out of a time when Lederach himself was healing from a serious car accident and over that year he listened to the works of Morrison which he believes helped the process.
Why do I bring that book up in a review of Van’s new album Keep Me Singing? Well, one part of Ledearch’s theory is very much alive in Morrison’s new collection of songs. Maybe Morrison has actually read When Blood and Bones Cry Out because the lines in the title track “I got to go back in my memory bank/See how it ought to be now” is exactly what Lederach is stating.
Lederach has the idea that to heal we might benefit from going back into good memories of the past to help us heal in the now. You can see why he finds an affinity with Morrison.
Van Morrison has constantly worked a rich seam of his early Belfast memories. We might feel that the transcendent moments of a Hyndford Street childhood, “dreaming in God’ or being “caught one more time up on Cyprus Avenue” were subjects to create songs. Maybe they are more. Maybe Lederach is revealing the power of Morrison’s healing muse.
Keep Me Singing is a record that trawls all of Morrison’s favourite past fishing gorunds. It is a record full of memories. We even have a song called Memory Lane. It is also never far from pain and sorrow. Van steals a line from the old Spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow” on Holy Guardian Angel.
Holy Guardian Angel is one of those prayers to the transcendent, so common in Morrison’s 80s and early 90s work. Call me theological squeamish but for me it is a brilliant Morrison moment but it loses some substance by being directed at an angel.
Why I really wanted to bring Lederach’s thoughts to bear on this record is that the entire piece sounds like Van Morrison is in a very good place of spirit. It is as if the healing has begun. The last two records of new originals Keep it Simple and Born To Sing; No Plan B had good songs, Behind The Ritual on the former, Mystic Of The East on the latter, but there is something free and easy about this new collection. There is less angst. There is still hurt, yes but there is more inner contentment. The music flows. The songs are strong. The feel is buoyant. It is Van Morrison at his best.
There is beauty in the sadness of Everytime I See A River and Out in the Cold Again. There is the aforementioned transcendence on Holy Guardian Angel, on which those recurring themes of the spiritual and Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour blend.
The very best of the collection is In Tiburon which takes Van back to his early 70s time living in San Fransisco and all of us musically back to the Inarticulate Speech Of the Heart with the stacked up images and literary references. This is A star Morrison. Utterly brilliant!
Going Down to Bangor is not as classic as In Tiburon but is particularly exciting for the Northern Irish like me to hear Bangor’s Pickie Pool and the Cavehill sounding as romantic as San Frans North Street Alleys and Geary Street. There is yet again a sense of healing in the remembering.
Morrison’s most consistent work since The Healing Game for sure… and there’s that healing idea again!