Van Morrison, What’s It Gonna Take? (Exile)

Van Morrison has been an annual fixture at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace since 2017. As a Vegas entertainer, his reputation has been mixed. He’s certainly a big draw, and his catalog is incredible. On any given night, he might play a tune he hasn’t performed in decades. For example, at one of his Vegas shows in February 2019, he did a great version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a song he has rarely included in his live sets. But, not unlike his singer-songwriter peer Bob Dylan, the 77-year-old Morrison is known for a relatively unexciting stage presence—little movement, no banter. If you buy tickets to one of his upcoming October shows at Caesars, don’t expect any of those Last Waltz leg kicks.

What can seem like diffidence could be attributable to the stage fright that powerfully affected him in the 1970s—though, as he sings in “Fear and Self-Loathing in Las Vegas,” a track from his new album, What’s It Gonna Take?, “Have to make it through the show tonight / Thank God I don’t get stage fright.”

Morrison hasn’t exactly kept it a secret that he’d rather sing in a little joint than in a giant theater. “The bigger places you have to do for financial survival reasons, let me put it that way, but the bigger places enable me to play small clubs occasionally,” he has said. And yet, he’d certainly rather play an arena than nowhere at all. During the coronavirus pandemic, his touring schedule took a hit, and this seems to have touched a nerve and stirred his songwriting animus more than anything else in his 60-year career.

In 2020, he released a few songs, such as “No More Lockdown,” explicitly critical of the U.K. government’s Covid policies. This continued through his strange 2021 double-album, Latest Record Project: Volume 1, which featured tunes like “Where Have All the Rebels Gone?” (critical of rock stars who obeyed and supported shutdowns) and “Why Are You on Facebook?” (critical of folks on social media). Though he insisted in an interview that the latter song was “tongue in cheek—not to be taken seriously,” it was still weird. The iconic voice had become curmudgeonly avuncular; GQ referred to the album as “cantankerous.”  

Now, with What’s It Gonna Take?, his 43rd studio album, Morrison has produced a record that consists nearly exclusively of pandemic protest music. It warrants the label concept album. Each song places Morrison in the position of a beleaguered artist buffeted by the cruel policies of billionaires and bureaucrats. Bill Gates (“the Gates from Hell”) and Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, are explicitly named as enemies multiple times. The media is engaged in dangerous mind control, and Morrison is out to encourage listeners to do their own research and think for themselves.

This set of talking points won’t strike many as original or provocative. Nor is it necessarily a surprising outlook for a septuagenarian Irish millionaire. And, in fact, penning songs that attack businessmen and politicians is fairly normal in the history of rock’n’roll. But for the Belfast Cowboy, this level of engagement with contemporary issues is unusual, or at least it was until the last couple years. Over the course of his long, prolific career, the reclusive Morrison has never really been known for writing “political music,” nor has he been willing to attach much significance to his own lyrics. (“The only time I actually work with words is when I’m writing a song,” he said in a 1978 interview. “After it’s written, I release the words; and every time I’m singing, I’m singing syllables. I’m just singing signs and phrases.”) For decades and decades, he didn’t feel the need to address, explicitly in his lyrics, issues such as foreign wars, civil injustice, bureaucratic corruption, environmental disaster, or humanitarian crises. But now, after sixty years of songwriting, we get not just one track but an entire album of protest songs—protesting government overreach to combat a pandemic.

These strange songs are worth reflecting on partly because of the attention that Morrison’s entire songwriting generation has received. The conferral of a Nobel Prize in Literature upon Bob Dylan in 2015 especially suggested that more serious consideration was due. Gifted lyricists such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon might be just as deserving of literary accolades as the poets publishing their verses in chapbooks and little magazines. Of this notable generation of songwriters, Van Morrison surely stands out. His output of original material is impressive, and his songs often cleverly arrange cryptic allusions alongside funky observations in an idiosyncratic patois.

Morrison’s voice, though, is what vaulted him into stardom, an Irish brogue of unusual intensity and stamina—a perfect partner for the tenor saxophone he has used to compose material. While some of his songwriting contemporaries have been criticized as poor vocalists (Dylan, Mitchell, Neil Young), Van the Man has been known as a full-throated prodigy with remarkable power. It has been his pipes rather than his poetry which have won him praise. Early on he developed a reputation for his scat singing, filling time with nonsense syllables rather than reaching for a witty bon mot. In fan favorites like “Listen to the Lion,” heavy repetition and deep growling gradually sweep away the curious turns of phrase.

City Lights Press—the San Francisco publisher known for promoting Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the 1950s—published a collection of Morrison’s lyrics in 2014. Morrison has been explicit about the influence the Beats had on him; he mentions reading “Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and On the Road” in his terrific 1982 tune “Cleaning Windows.” But read as poetry, his lyrics seem less like Beat riffing and more like Dada experimentation. The collection was edited to retain Morrison’s trademark scatting, so lines of poetry in the book include “Sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah” (“Brown Eyed Girl”), “Dadada da da da, dada da da da” (“Jackie Wilson Said”), and “De de de de de de de de de” (“Rolling Hills”).

Is this a cry for help? Is it all an elaborate fiction?

While Morrison’s lyrics probably won’t land him in any notable poetry anthologies, they are nevertheless interesting. And What’s It Gonna Take?, taken as a whole, is worth a listen. The tunes are quite good. And the second half of the album takes a fascinating turn. “Damage and Recovery,” the catchiest tune on the record, begins by complaining about the “fear-mongering media” and “snowflakes hiding in their houses” but keeps repeating that “I’m not where I’m meant to be.” The rest of the tracks deepen this self-deprecatory vein, questioning whether the singer himself is the problem. “I’m having a nervous breakdown,” he shouts in one number. “I ain’t no celebrity,” he pleads in the next. “Playing music is enough for me.”

Don’t take my lyrics seriously, he seems to be saying. I’m just a musician, an entertainer. He even suggests that he is only operating under a “stage name,” that this is all just a performance. The final tune, “Pretending,” throws everything before it under the shadow of irony:

Pretending my life is not in ruins
Pretending I’m not depressed
Pretending I left it all behind
Pretending most of the time

Is this a cry for help? Is any aspect of the album’s lyrics sincere? Is it all an elaborate fiction?

While many listeners will initially recoil from its odd politicizing, the future will look more kindly on What’s It Gonna Take?. It will be seen as an inventive concept album generated in the twilight of a hitmaker’s career. The tunes are good, and the production quality is sound. The lyrics are often vague enough that a later generation of listeners won’t understand the specific references. They’ll be left with pop songs about fighting back against corrupt authorities—with artful arrangements, smooth horns, and excellent vocals.

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