Van Morrison has put out some incredible albums over the past few decades, but then again he has also been responsible for some of the most mind-numbing sludge ever created by a major "artiste." This yin-yang thing can be a bit of a yo-yo for all but Morrison's most devoted — and audio-blind — fans.
With Back on Top our hero can't seem to decide whether he's a rough-and-ready blues dude, a congenial, world-weary soul singer or a transcendental, heartsick poet-mensch. Treading on the edge of beauty with hobnail boots, Morrison tends to destroy any sort of pacing that might make this an interesting album instead of a flawed one. If he would only work on presentation …
Too Long in Exile was Morrison's last coherent effort, where he managed a skillful blend of roots and spirituality that made that album great. And that was six years ago. Back on Top includes some wonderful tunes, but in general there's little "oomph" involved, almost as if he were going through the motions and repeating Van's Greatest Hits, volume ad infinitum.
He starts off with "Goin' Down Geneva," which has all the rough-hewn edges a respectable blues shouter could ask for. The melody line sounds suspiciously like Bob Dylan's "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat" — but that was probably a rip-off of J.B. Lenoir with clever, existential lyrics in the first place. Then, after jump starting the album, Morrison lulls the listener into a relaxed, semicomatose state with two laid-back, sensitive tomes — "Philosophers Stone" and "In the Midnight" — containing self-help at their respective cores. By the time he gets back to a respectable, nonsomnambulist riff, Morrison jumps back, albeit briefly, into the world of the living. Then he's sensitive, then he's grooving but sensitive, then slow and sensitive, and then, just to change the pace a bit, he's upbeat but still — you guessed it — sensitive and (whoa) almost cynical.
The trouble with Van these days is that his musical palette seems to be filled with less emotional color than it had in the past. That doesn't mean Morrison won't come out with anything that is consistently involving later, but it sure does make for a long wait.