Van Morrison: What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Label: Blue Note
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- “I don’t have no hit record, I don’t have no TV show,” sings Van Morrison on one of several blues-styled tunes from his latest album. Morrison is singing the blues, all right, but he’s hardly lamenting his absence from the media spotlight. The intensely private Irish singer/songwriter has been at odds with the flotsam and jetsam of the star-making machinery throughout his nearly 40-year career. On his latest effort, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, he declares his independence once and for all from the fickle, media-scrutinized world of pop. Notably, the disc is on Blue Note, a label long known as the home of jazz’s crème de la crème. The label change is significant because it legitimizes the artist’s decades-long quest to transcend the hit-making mentality of the commercial music industry. Morrison—a hard-core devotee of jazz, rhythm & blues and soul whose best work combines those elements—never courted mainstream stardom, but nonetheless became a reluctant fixture of the ‘70s rock scene for lack of a more suitable avenue. A critic’s darling when he released his genre-defying solo debut Astral Weeks, he would later become their whipping boy when he followed his muse into alien territory or, worse, when high expectations choked his creativity. Without the commercial or critical pressures that once shadowed him, it’s no wonder he sounds as relaxed as he does on this collection of mostly original, traditional-styled tunes.
Morrison is at his breeziest on the swishy “Somerset” and “Evening In June,” which boast tasteful horn arrangements, and he offers a stylistic first on the uncharacteristically cheery “Once In A Blue Moon.” The island-flavored cha-cha finds Morrison celebrating the “state of natural grace” in which he finds himself on this effortless sounding outing. His playfulness is also evident on “Get On With The Show” and the title track, where he emits a spontaneous chuckle and waxes tongue-in-cheek about the Houdini-like disappearance of his former pop persona: “what’s wrong with this picture?/ doesn’t anybody see/ that’s who everyone thought that I used to be.”
Though his poetic, meditative lyrical bent is absent on these songs, Morrison isn’t lacking a theme. He still has a bone to pick with his unwanted rock-star legend, which he debunks on numerous cuts including “Too Many Myths,” “Fame,” and “Goldfish Bowl.” While these tracks focus primarily on the singer’s personal agenda, “Bowl” indicts the Western media of exploiting a culture hungry for easily consumed entertainment: “well, there’s parasites and psychic vampires feeding on the public at large/ and they prey on everybody/ they prey on you and me.”
Interestingly, Morrison’s musical liberation has sent him not in search of spiritual truth or transcendence, as was the case on much of his misunderstood mid-period work. On What’s Wrong With This Picture?, he simply exults in the sounds that first inspired him, and pulls it off with originality and authority.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.