INSTRUMENTS: Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, harmonica, Hammond organ, bass, drums, trumpet, tenor sax, clarinet, alto sax, flugelhorn, flute, piano, baritone sax, strings
MUSICIANS: Van Morrison, Matt Holland, Martin Winning, Lee Goodall, Richard Dunn, Ned Edwards, Pete Hurley, Bobby Irwin, John Allair, Mick Green, David Hayes, Acker Bilk, Johnny Scott, Geraint Watkins
ALL SONGS WRITTEN AND SUNG BY VAN MORRISON, EXCEPT FOR "GEORGIA ON MY MIND" WHICH IS WRITTEN BY RAY CHARLES
Released in 2002 and after a string of not unsuccessful or in any way bad, but rather meandering albums where it seemed as though Van was in one of his transition phases, appearing as if he was caught between the past and the present - trying to find his way comfortably back into basics and his own history (the past being more comfortable and more real...less plastic, less superficial, deeper and oozing soul), his offering of "Down The Road" comes across to me as a brief sense of him possibly getting closer to "finding himself" and his roots once more, before maybe losing his way again on the journey along his own personal road.
Despite great statements of isolation, loneliness and a hankering back to the past, this comes across to me as a kind of a "grounding" set of songs where Van very strongly re-introduces his special kind of soulful bite and wistfulness - the best way I can describe that soulful bite and wistfulness, is a sort of sadness that holds a deep and sensitive connection with the concept of contrasting everything that is around and within; mingling pleasure with pain, the present with the past, and light with darkness; a realisation of those often being one and the same thing - viewing oneself as a whole rather than in fragments, and caught hovering halfway between the cloud and the silver lining.
I was delighted by this album from the very first hearing (so were a few other people I know who are hard line Van fans) - and it came across to me as being a gem of an album which stands out in all its shining glory, from within a series of works where Van seemed reluctant or unable to tune into his own special, unique spirit and sense of the world. This one definitely hits that unique spirit and sense of the world spot.
Once again I warn those who don't like track by track analysis, to skip to the end.
1) DOWN THE ROAD
This song begins with Van on harmonica, backed by bitingly wistful guitar chords, is of mid-tempo, and has a rolling rhythm that arrangement-wise, isn't too far away from Eddie Cochran's "Three Steps To Heaven". Van then begins to sing a song that hits a deliciously poignant spot inside of me - the song is all about travelling down the road, back to re-tune into another, previous time. Memories, dreams and reflections keep haunting him - he hears their myriad voices calling him back down the road, and the pull towards them is very powerful. Van plays a harmonica middle-eight, with the same backing as in the introduction, then it moves into a rather bluesy, soulful Hammond organ improvisation. This song is about roots and yearnings...not nostalgia exactly, but powerful reminders of who he is in essence - reminders that keep coming back, haunting.....it's a song about the blues, homesickness, times when life was simpler and more satisfying, conveying a deep yearning to completely bond with the past and hook into the essence of what is his original driving spirit. The soul content of this track holds no bounds, and I can honestly say is one of the best songs Van has ever written. It winds down with his own very special and personal singing style, which is soulful, somewhat repetitive - but in an interesting way.
2) MEET ME IN THE INDIAN SUMMER
This song begins with a nice jazzy piece of guitar and Hammond organ, up-tempo, then in comes a chorus of sax. Van's voice starts to sing this jaunty little love song which speaks of how much he wants to know the person he's singing to that he cares. He invites the person to join him for a walk in the Indian summer - to go walking by the willow tree...into eternity, to walk back, way back, to a time from the past and what he knows. There's a wonderful line in this song..... "my world is so lonely, just like a freight train in the dawn..." - the confusion Van feels about where he stands in the modern world is powerful in this track, yet it is expressed with a poignant sense of positivity. In the middle of this track there's a superb jazzy sax break, backed by gentle Hammond organ...then is taken over by a gently screaming clarinet. Oh this track oozes a huge bundle of brightness tinged with poignancy....and perfectly projects the mood of a lovely, sunny autumn day. The song draws to a close with all the instruments and Van's voice coming together in a single chord, then Van bending his voice into a final "whoah".
3) STEAL MY HEART AWAY
Beginning with a softly played piano and Hammond organ, then Van's voice quietly coming in, this is a gentle love song where he explains to his love that his journey is filled with obstacles, and much longer than he thought it would be. Each time he thinks of her, he is reminded of a morning in May, the heather on the hill....and a place way up the mountainside where the world stands still. He is travelling towards her gradually, and can't wait until they are together. The song is backed by brass instruments, and has a gentle, rather pretty piano solo in the middle - followed on by what I believe is a trumpet. The piano backing on this song is reminiscent of gently running water. It's not my favourite track on the album, but the romantic content is gentle, warm and pure.
4) HEY MR DJ
This track was released as a single from the album and sadly didn't make the UK top 40. It begins with a sultry sax, with a nice steady mid-tempo tune. Van's voice joins in, asking the DJ to play him something that he knows for him and his lover, as he's feeling lonely tonight and wants him to make everything alright. He expresses a little nervousness at not knowing what's coming next in life...drifting like a ship out on the sea, at a loose end in life. This track has orchestrated violins in the background, with rather laid-back sax and choral female backing singers. There is a slight, almost indistinctive male voice here and there adding a little doo-wop style burst, then in the middle-eight Van chants, Sam Cooke style. This is a pleasant song, but I don't know why it was chosen as the single to be released from the album - I personally don't feel it's the most commercial of all the tracks.
5) TALK IS CHEAP
This song starts with dirty sounding harmonica, drumming, Hammond organ and guitar. It's a sleazy track with a slight jazz/blues influence, and is a direct attack on the media, warning everybody to stay away from that side of things, because "talk is cheap" and everything gets misunderstood, mis-quoted etc. The middle-eight of this song continues with the instrumentals as set in the intro, and is joined by a solo bluesy violin, followed by little jerky utterances on harmonica. The song rolls along pretty much in the same vein all through, and is just a basic piece of jazz/blues-influenced pop music. The violin returns a second time with that unusual sound....a sound which is usually played on keyboards or brass. The song ends with a chord on the violin that almost sounds country-fied, together with a little drum roll.
6) CHOPPIN' WOOD
This song begins with quiet Hammond organ....guitar being the most prominent instrument, playing a little riff, before it's joined by the whole brass section and Van's voice. This is a gently rocking song, slightly blues/jazz influenced, and is I believe, a song dedicated to Van's father. There's a wonderful spirit to this song, reminiscing about what his father did, how he lacked ambition but cared for his family. The middle of the song contains a superb, sleazy-ish clarinet solo followed by high-pitched harmonica. There's a wonderful few lines.... "So you came back home to Belfast, so you could be with us...like...you lived your life of quiet desperation on the side, going to the shipyard in the morning on your bike." It appears from this song that Van (assuming it is about his dad) sees his father, judging by some of the other words, as a man having dreams and a great potential that he never saw come to fruition, being resignedly happy to just settle (after a period of being away from them - possibly serving in WW2??) at home with his family. The brass section behind this song is absolutely great...very professional and well arranged. Van goes on to describe how when "everything fell through", his dad kept on chopping wood....and, the song ends on a nice long-held clarinet note.
7) WHAT MAKES THE IRISH HEART BEAT
This song begins with guitar, then Van's voice quickly comes in. It's a song done in C&W style, particularly the piano in the background, with slide C&W style guitar and violin. Now, I for the most part I personally hate country music, but this track is one of the best of the album. The guitar & violin in the middle-eight almost sounds like Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man", but oh so much more tasteful. This is a very skilfully written song, and the words are poetic - singing all about travelling the world, faraway from home, touring....knowing that his urge to roam is "what makes the Irish heart beat", yet simultaneously missing home and wanting to be there. This is one of those songs I'd love to type out all the words of, as lyrically it truly is one of Van's all-time best offerings.
8) ALL WORK AND NO PLAY
This cool, jazzy sounding song begins with a brass section backing up a deliciously gentle, sleazy alto-sax riff. Van's voice joins in backed by a chorus of slightly clumsy-sounding male vocals, singing a song of being on the road, touring...missing those who he has left behind. The middle-eight of the track is a little improvisation (rather dirty-sounding) on Hammond organ, backed by brass section and drums. This song is in a sort of late 1950s/early 1960s style, not dissimilar to that of Fats Domino - gently rocking, slightly rock & roll influenced, slightly jazz influenced. I just wish there was a name for the category of music I'm trying to explain here, but as far as I know, there isn't one. Near the end of the song, we get the alto-sax riff return, nice'n'sleazy and screamy.....then the rest of the brass joins in again, with a steady rock & roll-ish improvisation, winding down to a final chord at the end.
9) WHATEVER HAPPENED TO P J PROBY?
This song begins with brass section and a dirty sax...with little Hammond organ twiddles. Van then joins in...it's a somewhat spooky little jazzy tune, aligning the "whatever happened to P J Proby" concept to nostalgically walking down the highway of life...wondering what happened to the past, and that modern-day existence and its offerings have no soul, no depth. There's a lovely creepy sax solo in the middle, and the whole song has a feel to it - a bit like "Green Door" (....midnight, one more night without sleeping....!). Van's got a bit lost on this road he's travelling, wondering what happened to the dreams of his youth....and, the last vocal line in the song is.... "and whatever happened to me?". When I very first heard this album, that line struck a chilly chord inside of me, as I was feeling the very same way about life and my own inner bits as Van speaks of in this song. I then realised I'd lost a bit of myself not in the past, but to the past, as Van himself seems to feel he has done. The whole song winds up rather quickly on a single chord, played by the brass section. I personally feel that this should have been the track to be released as a single from the album, as I feel the public at large (especially those over a certain age) would have been able to identify with it quite strongly.
10) THE BEAUTY OF THE DAYS GONE BY
This song begins very poignantly, with strings, quiet guitar and harmonica. Van's voice then glides in, again in reminiscent/nostalgic mode. He recalls how free he felt when younger, taking in the mountain air...feeling the sun, and the imagery jumps from town to countryside. Gentle Hammond organ and guitar backs this almost hymn-like song. Van sings of contemplating his own true self, latching onto his sense of and experiences of the past when life was easier - the beauty of days gone by...and it's that memory and vision which keeps him moving on down the road and contemplating his true, inner soul, keeping him young as he grows old. The middle-eight is a few violins backing a solo one, then Van sings again with some female backing vocalists, bringing a very slight gospel flavour to the song. The song sort of plods along, but not in an unpleasant way - it has a rather rustic feel, combined with a nostalgic sense of spirituality.
11) GEORGIA ON MY MIND
This is Van's rendition of the old Ray Charles song, and it begins with soft Hammond organ...in comes Van's voice backed by bluesy piano and soft guitar. The whole thing is done very much in the same style as Ray Charles' version - Van's voice is made for this style of music, but he does do a little of his own brand of scat singing here and there, and I don't like it very much. It's good in some other Van songs, but it doesn't suit this one. For me it's the instrumentals in this track which are its saving grace - also it's possibly worth saying that it's not my favourite song anyway, regardless of who it's performed by. This is a lazy-sounding track...either for walking through rain-splattered streets on a dark, chilly, autumn evening - or for lazing at home alone, a little lonely, sitting in front of a glowing coal fire with a large glass of gin. The best bit is the dirty, bluesy yet sadly wistful sounding tenor sax solo in the middle of the song. As the song progresses, the brass section gets louder and more energetic, together with Van's voice....building up to a slidey, dirty, almost screaming final note.
12) ONLY A DREAM
Wow! This song hurts! It opens with solemn-sounding piano backed with gentle, military-like drumming. The song plods on, almost dirge-like, with Van's voice singing about his life and fame having been a dream....a dream that knocked him off his feet. A brass section joins in, carrying the main tune under Van's voice, and the words get more and more poignant (along with the tune). The feeling and concept of the dream keep hanging around and re-surfacing - a big and painful reminder of a past that's no longer in existence, which began with laughter and joy and the wake-up call was a sharp plummet back down to earth and reality. The middle-eight is largely played on piano, sounding more and more wistful/poignant, yet with a touch of a blues-ish sound, then hands over to tenor sax - which picks up on the wistful/poignant theme, improvising with some masterful little twiddles. This for me is a very sad, almost dark song that aligns perfectly when looking back at life and realising that the bits you thought would work out fine, didn't somehow.
13) MAN HAS TO STRUGGLE
This song begins with twiddly guitar, soul-style strings backing and drums. Van joins in, singing a song about all the trials and tribulations we have to cope with in our lives, simply by the virtue of being human. The tune goes alternately happy and sad, mid to slow-ish tempo. There are some incredibly poetic lines here that I'd like to type out but I don't think the copyright brigade would be too pleased. One interesting thing for me in the song is about within the human condition, people calling upon gurus, gods etc. for support, guidance, advice. The middle-eight is Van playing slightly muted, low-toned harmonica - then he returns to the verse once more. This song rolls along gently and is pleasant to listen to, but the music/instrumentals/singing don't dig into anything overly special inside of me. The good bit is the words. There is some twiddly, wistful guitar in the background, but it is almost imperceptible. The song winds down with Van doing his harmonica bit again, and ends with a flurry of strings.
14) EVENING SHADOWS
This song begins with muted trumpet and slightly funky guitar, then Van's voice joins in - with a slightly awkward-sounding tune - singing of a person always being on his mind when the evening shadows fall, and he's staring at the wall. He wants her back, back where she belongs, as he can't "sing his song" without her. I'm not mad on the instrumental arrangement of this song....sounds a bit too South American-ish for me and I'm not mad on that sort of music, but there is a nice, muted clarinet solo in the middle which gives me something to hang onto. The clarinet solo then ends, and a Hammond organ solo begins, which does to me appear to roll a little off kilter regarding where the player is taking the improvisation. Van does shriek some of the words, and sometimes he does that better than others - this track is one of the times where he doesn't do it so well. The whole thing ends with a roll on clarinet, another instrument that I can't identify, and a rustle on the drums.
15) FAST TRAIN
Now we're talking!!! This track begins with slow harmonica, backed by gentle Hammond organ, dreamy guitar and wistful piano. A slow song, sad and wistful. Van's voice comes in, describing how he's been on the "fast train" (life!) and how you break down, can't get back, when you've been on the fast train. The song is about life being a strain to the point where you don't quite realise what's happening, yet going with the flow is destructive. There's nobody on his wavelength, nobody to help.....and he hears the sound of that "fast train". The middle eight is made up of slow harmonica, quiet bluesy guitar and Hammond organ. The song moves on, life moves on - to the sound of the wheels.....then you start breaking down and move into the pain, moving on the fast train. There's nowhere left to go - all you can do is keep moving on, stepping into no-man's land, so alone. As this track progresses, all the instruments join in together, giving a massively wistful, biting stream of music, with Van's voice improvising over the top - cutting, tearing away at your inner vulnerabilities - through the barren waste, going nowhere, on a fast train. This song is Van, Van, Van at his core and is a superb finish to what in 2002 was the very best album he'd released for around 8 or so years.
I am going to say a little extra about the track "Georgia On My Mind", as I have just switched the radio on and it, by chance, and by Ray Charles is playing. Simple really - my statement is, Sorry Van....you have given us a rather mediocre cover version of "Georgia On My Mind".
Overall, the album "Down The Road" is one of Van Morrison's better offerings from this century. It contains plenty of his old power to, with his tunes, musical arrangements, voice and words, take his listeners/fans to a place full of wistful positivity. This album is strongly Irish, but not in the sense of using traditional Irish music to put the Irishness across.....it comes over in the words, the reminiscences, the observations of nature, and the heartfelt yet not over the top sense of isolation in the words.
Even if you aren't a Van Morrison fan, chances are you'd find this album enjoyable and easy to listen to - much more so than most of his other offerings from the past decade or so, and if you are a hard line Van fan and don't have the album, you'll love it.
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Down The Road
2 Meet Me In The Indian Summer
3 Steal My Heart Away
4 Hey Mister DJ
5 Talk Is Cheap
6 Choppin' Wood
7 What Makes The Irish Heart Beat
8 All Work And No Play
9 Whatever Happened To PJ Proby
10 The Beauty Of The Days Gone By
11 Georgia On My Mind
12 Only A Dream
13 Man Has To Struggle
14 Evening Shadows
15 Fast Train