The Celtic-folk icon sounds freshly reinvigorated on a collection that reflects upon the past

By Jonathan Bernstein
Updated September 27, 2016 at 04:16 PM EDT
Credit: Lawrence Watson

Why still sing? That’s a question Van Morrison has been preoccupied with over the past few years, beginning with his defensively titled, uninspired 2012 album Born to Sing: No Plan B, and extending to a rote 2014 collection of re-recorded duets, the title of which felt like a justification for its own existence: Duets: Re-working the Catalogue.

Two years later, the Celtic folk icon is back with Keep Me Singing, a new album of original material, and once again, the stated theme is the very notion that Morrison is still recording in the first place. But unlike his past few efforts, Keep Me Singing finds the 71-year-old freshly reinvigorated, with the singer plunging as deep into his own sense of mystical self-discovery as he’s been since 2005’s Magic Time.

“Call it nostalgia, I don’t mind,” he sang on that record, and more than a decade later, nostalgia (and its side effects) is once again Morrison’s driving focus on this set of jazz-meets-blues tunes. Over ornate arrangements of piano, highly orchestrated string sections and delicate trumpets, Morrison reminisces about 70’s Bay Area bohemia, gently recalls the Northern Irish countryside of his adolescence, and expounds on the transcendence of hearing Sam Cooke on the radio.

For Morrison, relying on the mystery of one’s own memory and personal past is the only way to navigate an increasingly uncertain future. “I got to go way back in my memory bank / To see how it ought to be now,” he sings over a mid-tempo R&B groove on the title track. If Van hadn’t already made the point clear enough, there’s also a deeply haunting song called “Memory Lane.”

Morrison’s voice has lost some of its sheer power, but he has retained all of its deep expressiveness, still every bit the otherworldly musical instrument it’s been for the past half-century. As far as songwriting, Morrison keeps the on-the-nose clunkers to a minimum with a few tossed-off numbers like “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword” and “Every Time I See a River.” More often, Morrison retreats into spiritual self-discovery on highlights “Holy Guardian Angel” and “In Tiburon.” As the songwriter himself puts it, “Now I’m back here again with more questions than answers.” Keep Me Singing proves once again that Morrison is always at his best when that’s the case.


“Holy Guardian Angel”

Morrison embraces his eternal mysticism on this moving devotional.

“Memory Lane”

Morrison abandons his favored blues and jazz styles for this torchy ballad, featuring one of his best vocal performances in years.