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Keep it Simple

The Belfast cowboy keeps on making quality records

Rating: 7 / 10

Niall Stokes, 07 Apr 2008

Not everyone feels the need to make a ‘big’ album, every time they go into the studio. Van Morrison’s attitude is much more that of the working musician. He does it because it’s what he does: he writes songs, records them, tours and when it feels right he goes back in again, to distil some more of that potent Northern spirit.

He never makes a bad record, just ones that are better by a matter of degree. Keep It Simple isn’t scaling any brand new heights – there’s no ‘Moondance’, ‘Rave On John Donne’, ‘Cleaning Windows’ or ‘Coney Island’ here. But it’s good, solid, well-built, engaging in its lack of veneer and consummate in its long-simmering professionalism. Oh, and it has some great, fat, chunky organ on it, as well as the impressively quaint sound of Van on ukelele on a couple of tracks.

It exhibits that spiky resentment of phoneys for which Van has a reputation. “I was educated by the school of hard knocks,” he sings, “Tell me who’s gonna patronise me now?” And, by way of balance, it reveals a warm sense of longing – and of belonging – that’s best captured on the beautiful ‘Song Of Home’. “I can see the harbour lights,” Van confesses, “Hear the foghorns in the night/All up and down the lough/Calling…” Inevitably, you’re drawn back into the mystic of his Belfast upbringing…

There’s a self-deprecating rawness to the songs about alcohol. “I’m not a legend in my own mind/Don’t need no booze to unwind,” he sings in ‘Don’t Go To Nightclubs Anymore’, but there’s a sense of humour too, as he concludes “I’m such a bore”. And on the title track, you are left with the impression of a man who feels slightly out of joint with the times – or, at least, that the times themselves are woefully out of joint.

No matter. He is one of the greatest writers of love songs ever, perhaps the greatest, and here he delivers a peach in ‘That’s Entrainment’ (Van was never frightened of a big word: it refers to the synchronisation of organs to an external rhythm). The craft is evident in the way the repetition of ‘you’ becomes the hook and there’s a lovely rolling, mesmerising quality to the way the arrangement flows: “You – with your ballerina dance/Well you – put me back in a trance.”

On ‘Soul’ he offers a credo of a sort. “Soul is what you’ve been through,” he muses. As it happens, Van’s been through it all, or nearly. Which is why he’s always worth listening to.

Key track: ‘That’s Entrainment’

Rating: 7 / 10
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