Born To Sing: No Plan B
Blue Note Records
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
Van Morrison’s latest, Born To Sing: No Plan B, is a shock of an album. It’s no small feat that Morrison, 67, still surprises and confounds on his 34th studio album, and Born To Sing is deserving of several career superlatives: It’s both the most traditionally jazz leaning and the crankiest, most pissed-off record the singer’s ever released. That those two superlatives don’t at all seem naturally congruous is part of the joke from Morrison, who spends a good 50% of Born To Sing’s 60 minute running time barking and growling, like an undergrad first discovering Marx, about economic inequality and the meaninglessness of money over a slick, light jazz.
There are some moments that have a bit more space to breathe. “Going Down To Monte Carlo” is desperate and sleazy, and the no-good gambler’s trip through high-stakes luxury is the most compelling story told on record. “Playing in the background, some kind of phony pseudo jazz,” Morrison sings, in a line that either might be a jab at his new sound, or else just the kind of sharp, fresh imagery the rest of Born To Sing is so fully lacking. The rest of “Monte Carlo,” which, at 8:12, is the longest track on the record, fades into an instrumental that serves as a reminder that latter day Van is as much a bandleader and arranger as he is a self-contained songwriter.
The opening track on Born To Sing is a soft pop number called “Open The Door (To Your Heart)”, but the main problem on Morrison’s latest is that doesn’t live up to the opening track’s advice. With all the preaching and educating throughout, Morrison is closing doors, not opening them, on Born To Sing. Though there’s something endearing enough about Morrison fully relishing in the role of old grumpy curmudgeon–this is a record full of venom and distrust–his best music has always been about discovery, about asking and creating questions and problems instead of addressing them. “If In Money We Trust” finds Van grumbling about the simultaneous valuelessness and all-encompassing power of money for eight minutes, a sentiment echoed two tracks later on “Educating Archie,” where Professor Morrison takes the podium:
“You’re a slave to the capitalist system
Which is ruled by the global elite
What happened to the individual?
What happened to working class white?
Cheap laughs aside, Van’s need to weigh in on widespread corporate greed and the consequent international financial crisis actually makes good sense. Ever since the Belfast kid signed his first record deal as a solo artist with Bert Berns’ Bang Records in 1967, one of the primary narratives of Morrison’s recording career has been one of economic distrust and abuse. He has railed against the corporate music business for decades, and has felt cheated and robbed out of his proper earnings as an artist throughout his career. As a way of getting out of a record contract, Morrison once recorded thirty one half-baked one chord ditties as a way of getting back at his former label while fulfilling his legal obligations. One of those songs was called “The Big Royalty Check,” where the bitter young man groans: “I’m waiting for my royalty check to come, and it still hasn’t come yet.” Forty-five years later, and being “Born To Sing” is still intertwined with debt and grief in the long run: “Feeling good playing the blues,” he’s happy to sing, until reality sets in: “keep on keeping on paying them dues.”
That’s all a way of saying that Born To Sing’s seemingly forced proselytizing is quite fitting, after all. Usually, though, the singer has kept his economic and bureaucratic frustrations separate from his music, which, at its best, is always concerned with the vulnerability and revelation of the self, with exploration instead of exhortation, but this time, he’s been pushed too far. Van feels fed up and disgusted, intense and focused, on Born To Sing: No Plan B, but unfortunately, the songs, more often than not, end the conversation there, leaving just a few hard knock lessons and some pretty jazz.