When I saw that Van Morrison was releasing a CD of duets, my heart sank a little. It’s the kind of project that signals a career’s end -- think of Frank Sinatra’s and Ray Charles’s duet recordings. Morrison has subtitled his set Re-working the Catalogue, and again I wondered if it was a holding pattern. Morrison has released something new almost yearly since the early 1990s, all of it workmanlike, some of it inspired, but it’s not as if he’s broken any new ground, as he did with his earlier records. He’s followed the career path of many of the blues singers who inspired him, such as Bobby Bland, by turning out solid records that reaffirm his position as a music icon.
Re-working the Catalogue is a reminder that Morrison has been writing great songs all along. It includes one tune from 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir, “If I Ever Needed Someone,” but most of the remaining songs are from later, lesser-known albums. While fans will know most of them, casual listeners will hear tunes that didn’t always get wide airplay but should have.
“Some Peace of Mind,” with Bobby Womack, comes from 1991’s Hymns to the Silence. Morrison’s crack band is in good form, and he sounds loose and confident. He and Womack play off each other well in an arrangement that’s brisker than the original. Mavis Staples brings gospel authority to “If I Ever Needed Someone,” but Morrison’s own soulful singing also reinforces the tune’s spiritual undercurrent.
Some of the new versions considerably differ from the originals. “Higher than the World,” from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983), is much improved here, with a swinging arrangement and some great scatting in the opening by George Benson, who also contributes a fine, bouncy guitar solo. “These Are the Days” has more jazz swagger than it did on Avalon Sunset (1989), and Natalie Cole’s singing is understated and elegant.
For the most part, Morrison has matched his guests to songs that fit them well, and the results are as enjoyable as they look on paper. Mark Knopfler brings deep feeling on guitar and voice to the title song of Irish Heartbeat (1988), and harmonizes perfectly with Morrison. Steve Winwood’s Hammond organ and soulful voice add a different spin to “Fire in the Belly,” from The Healing Game (1997), and Georgie Fame’s turn on “Get On with the Show,” which originally appeared on What’s Wrong with This Picture? (2003), is reminiscent of his time with Morrison in the ’90s.
Two other singers from Morrison’s era, Chris Farlowe and P.J. Proby, carry their blues and soul torches with as much skill and conviction as Morrison and deserve special mention, as does jazz singer Clare Teal. Michael Bublé wins you over with his enthusiasm but sounds lightweight next to Van, especially when his track is followed by a blues scorcher with Taj Mahal, “How Can a Poor Boy?,” a song from Keep It Simple (2008). The only clunker is a version of “Wild Honey” (from Common One, 1980) with Joss Stone, who seems incapable of singing a line without over-souling it to cinders.
The most surprising thing about Duets is how much fun the notoriously cranky Morrison seems to be having. He sings with an ease and an unforced power he hasn’t displayed in years, as if he’s realized he’s long past having to prove anything. Don Was co-produced with Morrison, and Bob Rock mixed. The sound is very clean and detailed, but I would have preferred more space between instruments.
Duets: Re-working the Catalogue doesn’t signal a new direction for Van Morrison, but fans will enjoy hearing him having a good time.
. . . Joseph Taylor