Van Morrison’s New Album Is Proof That It’s Never Too Late to Stop

The singer's "Latest Record Project" is a shameful footnote to a legendary career

May 7, 2021 12:05 am
Van Morrison
Van Morrison's "Latest Record Project Vol. 1" is two phoned-in hours of grievances.
Jason Davis / Stringer

When Van Morrison first announced his new double album, Latest Record Project, Vol. 1, back in March, we were immediately apprehensive. The legendary singer-songwriter had just come off a highly productive but highly problematic quarantine that saw him spewing his controversial beliefs about COVID-19 in the form four anti-lockdown, anti-mask songs (“Born to Be Free,” “Stand and Deliver” featuring Eric Clapton, “No More Lockdown,” and “As I Walked Out”). Thankfully, those were nowhere to be found on the new record’s tracklist, but other titles like “Where Have All the Rebels Gone?” “They Control the Media,” and — most embarrassingly — “Why Are You On Facebook?” indicated that the project would be plagued by Morrison’s conspiracy theories and anger about the state of the world.

We were right to be worried. Latest Record Project, Vol. 1 is a total shame of a record, so bad that it actively taints the legacy of one of the 20th century’s finest musicians and makes the case that it’s time for him to hang it up. As expected, it’s full of references to the COVID-19 safety measures Morrison was so outspoken against, as well as more general paranoia (“I’m a targeted individual,” he sings on “The Long Con”) and vague criticisms of the media (we never do find out who specifically the “they” refers to on “They Control the Media”). He rails against everything from what he perceives as the downfall of Western civilization (“Western Man”) to gold-diggers (“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”) and yes, the social media platform founded by Mark Zuckerberg. (There are plenty of valid criticisms to be levied at Facebook, of course, but all we get here is “Why do you need second-hand friends?” and “Get a life/Is it that empty inside?”)

Morrison’s never been shy about airing his grievances in song, of course, and his prickly persona is the stuff of legend. But in the past, the vitriol was balanced by stunningly gorgeous songs about love, beauty and nostalgia. Every immature lament about having to answer to the press or fans’ expectations was offset by some of the most soulful, poetic lyrics ever recorded, letting us know that there was a big softie underneath that gruff exterior. (How did we go from “If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dream / Where immobile steel rims crack / And the ditch in the back roads stop / Could you find me?” to “I got her tickets to the opera, but she complained about the VIP seats/Half a million euro/Said it wasn’t enough/How come if she’s still fit and able, she’s still too lazy to go out and work?”) From front to back — all 28 tracks and two-plus hours — Latest Record Project, Vol. 1 is focused on the negative.

But what’s most frustrating is that Morrison doesn’t seem to care enough to even fully commit to the whole “shaking his fist at the sky” vibe here. On “Only a Song,” he even seemingly tries to walk it all back a little bit by reminding us that these tracks are all just bullshit, anyway. “It’s not set in stone,” he sings. “It’s only a poem that could change in the long run / It’s what I said then just to make it rhyme, could have been on my mind at the time / Putting paper to pen, it’s only a song.” Only a song? For those of us who grew up worshipping Morrison, that doesn’t jibe at all with the passion that’s so obviously present on masterworks like Astral Weeks and Moondance, or even the infectious intensity and high leg-kicks of his legendary Last Waltz performance. How can someone so adept at whipping a crowd into a frenzy or crafting heartbreakingly gorgeous ballads that’ll be played at weddings long after he’s dead be so dismissive of the power of music? How did someone with such zeal for life, who once likened the way nature’s beauty stoned him to his soul to the amazement he felt hearing Jelly Roll Morton for the first time, possibly get to a point where it’s “only” a song? For him to basically shrug and tell us we’re taking it all too seriously isn’t just sad — it’s insulting.

It’s obvious that all of Latest Record Project, Vol. 1 was carelessly thrown together. Sonically, it feels totally phoned-in; it’s by-the-numbers Morrison fare that he could have recorded in his sleep. The album title feels like a placeholder that he just never bothered to replace, and its plain red, imageless cover art looks like it was thrown together in Photoshop in five minutes. Morrison obviously doesn’t have anyone around him in his ear to suggest that maybe this record doesn’t need to be 28 songs long, and he clearly didn’t bother with any kind of self-editing, instead just seemingly presenting us with every half-formed idea he farted out in quarantine.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that at age 75, Morrison’s voice still sounds great. There are brief moments on the album, like the catchy “Love Should Come With a Warning,” where we get an idea of what he’s still capable of, and it’s maddening to think about how good Latest Record Project, Vol. 1 could have been if he just gave a shit and didn’t spend so much time consumed by petty vendettas and baseless conspiracy theories. Ultimately, it’s a sad reminder that creativity and passion do, in fact, have shelf lives for some people, and the Van Morrison who famously howled “It’s too late to stop now!” and flung himself onto his knees at the end of a rousing nine-minute version of “Cypress Avenue” is gone. Maybe it’d be less painful for everyone involved if he had just stopped.

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