The subtitle of Van Morrison's new album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, indicates the power that music still holds for this living legend. "No Plan B means this is not a rehearsal," says Morrison. "That's the main thing—it's not a hobby, it's real, happening now, in real time."
This sense of absolute conviction, which has defined Morrison's revolutionary work for almost fifty years, runs throughout the new record, his thirty-fifth studio album as a solo artist. Morrison's career—which has seen him honored with a Brit Award, an OBE, an Ivor Novello, six Grammys, honorary doctorates from Belfast Queens and Ulster, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the French Ordres Des Artes Et Des Lettres—has done nothing less than redefine the possibilities of pop music. The ten original songs on Born to Sing, his first new album in four years (the longest he has ever gone between recordings), reveal an artist continuing to test his creative parameters.
"They're not all one thing," he says. "Some are about the world crisis, others are more mystical. Whatever ideas come in, there's no set ABC of it. Really, it wouldn't be interesting if everything was set—there would be no surprises."
As Morrison notes, perhaps the most striking thing on the new album is hearing him weigh in on the global financial and economic meltdown on several songs. His sense of outrage at the materialism and greed that have poisoned society first appears in the opening track, the breezy soul strut "Open the Door (To Your Heart)," when he sings "Money doesn't make you fulfilled/Money's just to pay the bills."
The theme recurs throughout Born to Sing, climaxing in the closer, "Educating Archie." The title refers to both a ventriloquist's dummy on a popular BBC radio show of Morrison's youth and television's working-class anti-hero Archie Bunker, both representing the kind of average guy whom the singer warns, "You're a slave to the capitalist system/Which is ruled by the global elite."
Morrison, never known as a protest singer, insists he's not taking a political stand. "I'm not protesting, I'm just observing what's happening—like Lenny Bruce said, 'Observation, baby!,'" he says. "Starting about two years ago, everybody was talking about money, money, money, and that's the way songs come about. Whatever people are talking about, the ideas around you, that's what you pick up."
Most fascinating might be "If In Money We Trust," a song-length meditation on the ways in which cash has replaced God at the center of the modern belief system. "That came from looking at a dollar bill and turning the concept on its head," he says. "I thought, 'What is this stuff on here, what does it mean?' Some people's god is money, we've discovered that about a lot of people recently, so then what happens after that—what happens if you don't have it, or if you don't have enough?"
The song also serves as a link to the kind of spirituality and mysticism that has been central to Morrison's work from such early masterpieces as Astral Weeks and St. Dominic's Preview through to more recent triumphs like The Healing Game and The Philosopher's Stone. After lamenting "Where's God?" as a refrain on "If In Money We Trust," he immediately follows with the swirling blues of "Pagan Heart," which finds him searching and casting spells "Down by the crossroads/Down by the Arcadian groves." Other songs, like "Retreat and View" and "Mystic of the East," illustrate Morrison's ongoing exploration of divine mystery.
"These are all just ideas," he says of the multiple perspectives offered throughout Born to Sing. "They're not my beliefs, I'm not proselytizing, it's not some kind of manifesto. Songs are just ideas, concepts, and you just put the mic there and go. There are no rules that say you can't have different ideas—in fact, why not? Why not have different ideas?"
From his earliest days, Van Morrison has channeled the influences of such giants as Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, and Leadbelly. His music has defied boundaries, offering everything from the swinging soul-jazz of Moondance to the traditional Celtic styles of Irish Heartbeat. In the last few decades, he has collaborated with a range of artists including John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison, and Tom Jones, and dedicated projects to celebrating and re-exploring his blues, jazz, skiffle, and country roots.
Born to Sing, recorded live in the studio with a core six-piece band (plus Morrison on piano, guitar, and alto saxophone), extends these musical roots into a signature blend that's impossible to imitate or to categorize. One song, the light-hearted "Close Enough for Jazz," started life as an instrumental, before Morrison later decided to add lyrics. "I don't think in terms of labels," he says. "It's a mix of all of it, a smorgasbord of all music and all my influences, and you hope that it comes out as something new. Ray Charles has always been my role model—he did everything, including reinventing country music."
The album also marks Morrison's return to the storied Blue Note label, home to many of his jazz idols, for which he last recorded 2003's What's Wrong With This Picture? The singer says that the affiliation is significant to him. "My father had quite a few of the old Blue Note records," he says, "and one of first records I had was Sidney Bechet's 'Summertime,' which was on Blue Note, too."
Despite the album's title, Morrison says that he didn't immediately know that he was Born to Sing. "I didn't know it was going to be a job until I was maybe fifteen or sixteen and started working in bands," he says. "I was just a kid trying to make my way in life. There was no revelation—it doesn't work that way."
Ever since then, though, Van Morrison has offered non-stop revelation to fans around the world. With Born to Sing, he responds to a time of crisis with solace and insight, vision and wonder, and incomparable soul that shows what happens when you really do create from the heart, with no Plan B.