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Carl's Rock Songbook No. 123: Van Morrison, "Latest Record Project"
The New Album Is a Watershed Moment
It was quite impressive this last fall when Van Morrison released “No More Lockdowns,” a solid blues-protest song, and three similarly-themed songs with it, one performed by Eric Clapton. It helped inspire my big IM-1776 “A 2020 Playlist” piece, where I also mentioned Morrison’s setting up a foundation to aide musicians struggling due to the lack of live gigs. With the exception of Mick Jagger and Dave Grohl (a very recent single, “Easy Sleazy”), no other prominent musical artists sang out against the lockdown regime.
But as it turns out, those four numbers were merely the tip of the iceberg! There’s twenty-eight more, on an album cheekily titled Latest Record Project, Volume I, and with most of them in the same vein, blasting the sorts of deceptions and conformity-demands our elites have been foisting upon us, and not only regarding Covid-19 policy. Representative titles include “Big Lie,” “They Own the Media,” “Duper’s Delight,” “Why Are You Still on Facebook?” and “The Long Con.”
Morrison has doubled-down, and then some!
Even though a few years back he said his work was deliberately “apolitical,” really all that’s missing on this new album for populist-conservatives to outright claim him is a song that’s anti-BLM/CRT or one that’s pro-Trump/Brexit. On this new album, there is one line about pricks out in the sticks that could be pointing to either vaccines or to populist-cranks in rural areas (“Deadbeat Saturday Night”), and there is one song, “Double Bind” that might be lamenting the situation faced by politically moderate persons, but even there, Morrison is most obviously sticking it to our progressivist elites:
It’s always the opposite of what they say,
‘cause they know people are easy prey.
Have to police everyone’s mind.
Nowadays you have to be careful of everything you say,
but it’s all by design.
That’s why we have to break the double bind.
So, this release is the cultural event of the rock/pop world this year, and one that conservatives would be fools not to highlight and support. It is as potentially significant an event as Dylan’s turn to born-again Christianity with 1979’s Slow Train Comin’. And because one can have greater faith in Morrison not walking his statements back nor obfuscating them, it could prove even more significant. That is not to say that politics is more important than the ultimate things, as after all, Morrison does quote one gospel song on this album and refers a couple times to thanking and pleasing God. Rather, it is to say that this new album feels like a potentially significant moment, a last chance for left-leaning but putatively “moderate” or “civil” baby-boomers to finally admit out-loud just how sour the progressivist project became, and especially over the last decade. A last chance to admit they got it wrong on a whole lot, and, as Van perhaps means to suggest in one lyric, that they got caught-up in a long con.
For if Morrison at his age can decide to unambiguously come out against progressivism’s present top-to-bottom corruption, maybe other Boomer-liberals can make similar declarations, as a last effort to help their descendants, and to clear their conscience. Such coming-to-terms as one approaches death seems part of the Morrison’s own motivation, as these lines from “My Time after a While” indicate:
It’s your time now, it’s gonna be my time after a while.
I just wanna see my God and children smile.
The tone is not one of regret in the face of death, but one that looks with confidence to the future, certainly to the heavenly one, but also to our future together here on earth. The time of the Dupers, despite many of them having got away with everything, is coming to a close. Yes, it’s long been raining in the morning, raining in the evening too, but too much of their game has been exposed for it to last much longer.
It’s wintertime now, but soon it’s gonna be Spring.
It’s such an encouraging album!
Now a number of well-placed critics are saying Latest Record Project, Vol. I is awful, terrible, and no-good. PJM has a good collection of these instances, and Armond White slams them in his fine review over at NRO. While the album has a few weaknesses, which we’ll consider below, basically, these critics are lying. It is very strong in musical terms, and in lyrical ones, a heroic blow against the existing order.
I say these critics are scared, their minds repelled and confused by the necessity of admitting that Morrison’s portrait of our Lie-reliant system, which implicates their place in it, is definitely plausible, containing at least a number of truths, and might even be capturing the overall one. It really might be the case that the political side that they and so many in the popular music field clung to is the one that developed into, with precious little push-back on their part, the one of obvious despotism-enablement. The one that has come to quite regularly squelch free expression and artistry. They cannot handle even an admission of the possibility of such things being true, so they lie to themselves about what their ears are hearing; similarly, they will not admit that for one who largely agreed with the message of the lyrics, these songs would be stirring.
A basic critical failing, that. You didn’t find, for example, the pioneering “Dylanologist” critic Michael Gray, falling into it when he evaluated Dylan’s Christian work. Gray did not want the artist he so revered to become or remain a Christian, but he proved perfectly capable of judging that such-and-such of Dylan’s Christian lyrics were good ones according to artistic standards, whereas others were not. With this new Morrison release, we’re not seeing that capability, nor that appeal to non-ideological standards, with these gatekeeper “critics.”
For those of you who haven’t much followed Morrison’s career, this video by David Atkinson, which selects a top ten out of his over forty(!) albums, will indicate some of its main features. Atkinson believes he “hasn’t made a bad album,” and says (2:42 forward) that he discerns three main phases, 1) his California-infused period, most famous for Astral Weeks and Moondance, 2) his more spirituality-oriented period (late 70s into 90s) from which Atkinson selects several of the very best albums (cc. Greil Marcus’s dislike of that period), and 3) his return to R&B and jazz roots.
My Latest Record Project, Vol. I fits into that last category well—it is a R&B album, straightforward and immediate, without the types of finely-wrought numbers Morrison has sometimes done that only click with careful listeners. Several blues songs are its standout moments, and at all points it grooves along nicely. That makes it fairly similar to his 2019 release, Three Chords and the Truth, which Atkinson puts in his top ten.
Now whenever anyone releases 28 songs, there are going to be ones that are lesser. On the basis of only listening a handful of times, I’d say “Breaking the Spell,” “He’s Not the Kingpin,” “Western Man,” and “Stop Bitching, Do Something,” fall into this category. Perhaps—as was the case with a couple of songs on Three Chords--they should have been cut. Of course, they do help develop the album’s main lyrical themes.
That points to the final impossibility in this case of judging the music and lyrics separately. The unique lyrics here at times infuse impact into the lesser tracks, and even more so in the many top-notch ones.
My speaking of “impact” might imply weight, but this is a protest album characterized by a light touch. The jabs, the protest points, are all delivered quickly, matter-of-factly, and while the cumulative impact might give superficial listeners the impression of a “cranky old man album,” a tone of confidence and inner joy keeps coming on through.
Fresh topical ground, humor, and a non-rock approach to social-comment song, are the three key aspects of his winning lyrical style.
First, none of us, whatever our political allegiances, are used to hearing these topics addressed in popular music. While it’s okay in the rock-set to occasionally make conservative points in song, on this album Morrison delivers one lyric after another which go after our progressivist elites, which present the media as thoroughly corrupt, and so forth. Even to conservative me, it initially feels odd to find myself singin’ along with things like the following:
Stop listening to the mainstream media junk--
look how far we’ve sunk. (“Blue Funk”)
Mind control keeps us in line,
that’s why we’ve got to think outside the blind leading the blind. (“Double Bind”)
You don’t notice,
when they hide behind the media...
You don’t notice,
‘cause they’re runnin’ rings around you.
You don’t notice,
‘cause they’re tryin’ to confine you. (“Duper’s Delight”)
A common reaction to anything fresh is to find it awkward. Cringey. And Morrison runs with that, singing lines he knows will surprise us, trusting that we will find the words fitting enough as the songs become familiar.
Second, at points Morrison amplifies the possible awkward feeling with a gently-humorous trolling. The prime example is the song he released two months ago, “Latest Record Project.” It presents itself as a promotional ditty for the new release, and contains mockingly repetitive lines, the better to needle those who dismissed his anti-lockdown lyrics as cranky and cringe with a promise that more, much more, is to come. It reminds me of a strategy Jonathan Richman would employ in certain songs, such as “Dance with Me” and “I’m Straight,” wherein he would take his audience into uncomfortable confessional-like is-this-an-on-stage-meltdown? moments, for the purpose of humor, but also, of breaking-through into intimacy. Like Richman, Morrison risks being extra-earnest, to arrive at greater connection with his generous listeners, and to drive the too-cool ones out of the room.
So strictly speaking, “Latest Record Project” is a bad song, but, a most brilliantly bad one! It’s the most ostentatious of several easy-target moments on the album, which have baited those who now feel a deep need to censure Morrison into making ridiculously overdone denunciations. Like an irked substitute teacher who is nearly sure he heard an insult whispered by some smart-aleck student, some of them will have a vague sense that somewhere in there, perhaps in those sha-la-la choruses, the joke’s on them.
Third, Morrison is preferring bluntness to subtlety and artistic riddling in his lyrics. This goes against most critics’ preferred pattern of lyrical artistry, and is more like the way an old-time blues or country artist might talk about political topics in song, on the rare occasions they would bother to.
To see the difference, compare and contrast Morrison’s new “Why Are You on Facebook?” with “Come On, Let’s Go,” a song from the somewhat obscure but ultimately influential art-rock band Broadcast, released back in 2000 prior to the impact of facebook itself, but making basically the same point that Morrison’s song is, that internet-socializing is a poor substitute for the real thing. Broadcast’s song is a tad mysterious, presented as if it were a postcard from the future, so that we less immediately grasp its message for our time:
Stop looking for answers in everyone’s face,
come on, let’s go.
What’s the point in wasting time,
with people that you’ll never know?
Come on, let’s go.
Beautiful, prophetic, and while you can’t dance to it all that well, aspiring to be Art. I accept its excellence, at least according to its own terms.
Now compare the impact of Morrison’s lyrics:
Is your life that empty and sad?
Or are you missing something you can’t have?
You kiss the girls and run away,
And now you won’t come to play!
Why are you on facebook? (x8)
Did you miss your fifteen-minutes of fame? …
Some good points here, but presented in cliché-reliant phrases, even ham-handed ones. What is more, if I were to put my imaginary populist-conservative political officer cap on, I would say, “Morrison’s song is ideologically sound, but it is addressing concerns we had about social media fifteen years ago, failing to adequately voice the more pressing concerns we have today about these platforms’ censorship, deliberate behavior modification, and mass-opinion manipulation.” That is, my political instincts don’t want a light touch here, but a much harder hit! Political-officers of any ideology suck, of course, but my legitimate and larger critical point is that whereas Broadcast took a good deal of care with their lyrics, it appears that Morrison just let it fly, having a few workable lyrics come to him on the topic, and running with those.
So is Morrison’s determination to keep it lyrically simple bad or good? Most years I’d say, in keeping with distinctions I’ve drawn before between rock-influenced-style and pre-rock-style, musical and lyrical, that it all depends on what you’re in the mood for. Do you want witty lyrics in a song you can dance to, and which other groups can cover? Go with Morrison. Or do you want more poetic and profound lyrics, in a largely un-coverable (and far less danceable) artistic moment? Go with Broadcast.
But I gotta say, in 2021, I’m much readier to go with Morrison’s err-on-the-side-of-the-too-blunt approach. In “Big Lie” he sings that too much was at stake, suggesting that he felt the lockdown regime’s getting us used to aspects of a new kind of despotism was just too dangerous a thing for him to have remained quiet about. Or subtle about, even in some artsy way. So with these “Facebook” lyrics, I won’t pretend they are great, but I must admit that they make the main point quickly, name names, and urge us to make a choice. It’s good to have this song out there, annoying our many faux-liberal defenders of social media power. It can shake things up in ways a song like “Come On, Let’s Go” never could. And with a smile and a shimmy to boot!
Making It Personal
In discussing lyrical approach, I’ve focused on one song Morrison made deliberately annoying, and on another that is not exactly A-level. Lest that convey the wrong impression, I need to stress that there are at least a dozen really fine songs here. Moreover, a number of the songs work message-wise not only at a surface level—e.g., “A Few Bars Early”—; and, several lyrical themes carry over from song to song.
One of the themes is a connection of the political to the personal for purposes of self-defense. What Morrison has in mind is significantly different from the feminist-leftist dogma about the personal always being political. He is saying there is a need to link the plots and con-games going on in politics to patterns of personal moral failing distinctive to our times; and vice-versa, a need to connect the troubles one is having in one’s own life, to plots and cons that perhaps have been deployed against one, by specific persons, even persons who have vested interest in the corrupt politics. Whereas the four songs released in the fall were all zeroed-in on lockdown-policy, on this album the broader political case is against general patterns of deception, especially media-enabled ones, and the concomitant moral corruption of an entire class of elites.
Now obviously, a resolution to look for connections between what these elites are doing to your society, and what they might be directly doing to you, risks falling into paranoia. The line in “The Long Con” where the narrator claims to be a targeted individual subjected to a long con, is both a powerful line for our times--ask Mark Judge why if you don’t immediately see it--, and one we can predict that some persons will take a little too-much to heart.
Might even Van be one of those persons? “The Long Con,” “Tried to Do the Right Thing,” and “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” contain lines that speak to aspects of marital/relational and legal/defamation troubles Morrison had over the last decade, with regard to one divorce, and to one accusation—which he stoutly denies—that he fathered a child out of wedlock. I am not well-informed on any of this and only know what Wikipedia reports, but am inclined to accept Van’s word on what happened. In any case, in the first song, there’s a claim that four judges screwed me over, and in the second song, whose full chorus line is tried to do the right thing for my baby, there’s this:
Now I’m facing all this resistance,
‘cause the wisdom of my decision was flawed.
I was promised it would be just our business,
but I found out so many people were involved.
Connect those lines to the ones in “The Long Con” that speak of certain persons wanting to cancel me as a father, to no longer have a voice, and to get me to go away and give up the fight. Here is the conclusion and resolution he makes in response:
I’m a targeted individual.
Got to get to the bottom of who’s pulling the strings.
I gotta make it personal,
see who’s waiting in the wings.
So, if mainly about his personal troubles, the song is delivered with political undertones. There’s the bleak idea that aspects of his marriage and divorce were a kind of long-term con-game, but creepier yet, a whiff of a suggestion that institutional and political figures nervous about the ideological unreliability of this Renegade Sir (that tag is in “Double Agent”—Morrison was knighted in 2015) might have been involved in making the persecution there worse. More broadly, there’s an association of his own troubles with those facing “targeted individuals” the world over. Perhaps a lot of us, in this era of shadow-banning and similar tricks, need to get a bit more suspicious about just who might be pulling the strings to our detriment.
Morrison is serious about this —New Record Project’s “Double Agent” casually mixes comment on general conformity and “mind control,” with a hint about corrupt actors at work in MI5, and Three Chords and the Truth’s “You Don’t Understand” set stunner lyrics like the following against a haunting, and deliberately “Ballad of a Thin Man”-echoing, backdrop:
You don’t want to know that there’s evil in the land…
There’s skullduggery about…
…What’s happened to me, what they can do to you,
you don’t have a clue.
…Does freedom of speech exist?
What free state is this?
You don't understand
how they work in the dark.
You don't understand
what it's like to be a mark
You don't understand how bad it is.
I was taken in.
You don't understand how mad and dangerous some people can be!
There are critics who want us to chalk the dark report and intuition in lyrics like these to a supposed persecution complex Morrison has evinced over the years, and it is true that he has had a pattern of uncharitable behavior towards many music journalists and a few competitor artists that fits the bill. So by this account, he has finally succumbed to this complex, and brought it into his songs. That explains the lyrics whose political import they dislike! (Among these critics is Elisabeth Nelson who reviewed the album for Pitchfork, whose future submissions all decent publications should automatically decline given the way she joined the even more vile Seth Rogovoy in implying, on the basis of zero evidence, that Morrison has put anti-Semitic “dog whistles” into this album’s lyrics. Yes, I am calling for the blacklisting of slanderers like them.) I don’t know the full story about how Van feels he was attacked in the decade leading up to 2021—much of it must have preceded his release of “No More Lockdowns”--and for all I know he has been too ready to connect personal troubles to political ones. But even if so, I believe he is still quite right about a larger pattern in our society. Maybe the times call for some over-suspicious inspiration, and especially if it stirs in a man with the integrity to confess his own flaws. And how is it possible to dismiss as a “crank” a man who forthrightly calls on those who agree with him to stop bitching, do something?
Morrison’s wealth, fame, and consistent musical excellence do give him an aristocrat’s power to step forward and release things like this album without the fear of media black-outs or other kinds of retaliation that less-established artists would have to reckon with, but it sure could be the case that his elevated position has also subjected him to attacks like those hinted at in a few of these songs. He has more power than most of us, but perhaps for that very reason, he’s been feeling more of the pressure.
The pressure to stay within set limits of acceptably progressivist-friendly discourse or artistry, is by no means limited to trickery and slander. Right out in the open it works upon all of us, by means of something quite akin to abusive-relationship dynamics. One aspect of this, as the podcasters Bret and Heather Weinstein have often said, is the way woke activists “weaponize our own decency against us.” They use words and claims as weapons, and too often, we stumblingly try to respond in the spirit of fair debate. More broadly, all of us are served warning that everything we or do or say has to meet some shifting standard of decency-according-to-the-woke, or else be categorized as retrograde, prejudiced, sexist, racist, conspiracy-theorist, etc. Never not be on guard is a snippet of lyric from Cate Le Bon’s 2019 release Reward, and Morrison’s “Diabolic Pressure” describes these dynamics this way:
Diabolic pressure, diabolic pressure,
Keeps gettin' worse, 'fore it gets much better.
It’s just killin' ya', killin' ya', killin' ya', killin' ya', bringin' ya' down…
Ain't gonna be your fool no more.
Ya' got one less fool than you had before.
Tried my best to please you, please you to the letter,
but anything is better than this diabolic pressure.
Not workin’ for you, not for workin’ for you no more (2x)
Just doesn’t ring true, just doesn’t ring true no more. (2x)
Morrison is saying the overall line of the dominant outlets, platforms, and institutions, and of the more-woke activists that their managers live in fear of, simply doesn’t capture the basic facts of reality any more. And to make it personal, there now occurs the realization that that kind of line has been used for years to cajole and pressure him, and many more of us, into editing ourselves, and into endless efforts to meet these “abusive-relationship partners” in politics and career half-way. It has now drifted so far from any semblance to truth, that we are being asked to play the part of communist subjects who loudly affirm things we all sense are false.
All-in-all, we’ve just had it with these diabolic abusers that we can never please. We will no longer work for them, as their lies no longer work on us, even on those of us like Morrison who confess that,
Well I thought I knew,
but I got fooled.
It could easily happen to you. (“Big Lie”)
So despite the “light touch” I’ve mentioned, there really is some depressing stuff on this album. Because that’s our situation. That’s what 2020 revealed. Is it merely a hyperbolic or sloppy line, for example, when Morrison sings in “They Own the Media,” that they control everything you do? If the economy now revolves around internet activity, if all your activity on it is monitor-able, and if the human resources departments are now all stepping to the tune of the woke, isn’t this closer to the truth of things than we’d like to admit?
But Morrison’s instinctual guess and hope is that the Dupers have finally over-played their hand, and that their time is up. His personal liberation from their entangling webs of lies and forced collegiality prefigures a larger one.
Even if he’s right, the politics, electoral and institutional, of our society’s liberation are going to be tricky, messy, and in many instances quite unglamorous.
For now, however, this album feels like a lifeline of hope. Morrison gamely permitted comments on all the videos for it, and what has emerged in those comment sections is about a seventy-to-one approval of Latest Record Project, Vol. I and the stand it makes, and what is more, hundreds of comments expressing immense thanks for it. “Van’s the man!” once had a too-easy ring, but in these comments, it really comes to mean something. So this is a big cultural moment, a possible turning-point of the whole bloody mess.
One of Peter Lawler’s signature moves was to describe some awful trend or set-back, and then to say something like “Thank God, the world’s still going to pot!” Given that he often wrote against post-1989 Fukuyama-type expectations that Liberalism and its technology/economy had now triumphed and solved all human problems, what he meant is that it is in fact very bad for humans to believe such delusions. Thus, times that are too-good turn out to contain a real danger to our souls. The postmodern conservative stance he taught us is that we need challenging times, and the last eight or so years have certainly brought them! And so when I hear Van Morrison singing perhaps my favorite from the new album, “Thank God for the Blues,” I have thoughts about the subterranean yet also oppositional connections between the blues and black gospel, but what most comes to mind is the wisdom of my missed friend Peter Augustine Lawler. He knew that having the blues, in both senses of the term, could be a cause for thanks.
Singing what’s real
Singing what’s true
Singing, that’s what I’m here to do.
I was born, born to sing the blues.
Sing it for the people,
who feel the same way that I do.
…Way out is the way through.
Thank God for the blues!
Yes. And thank you also Van Morrison. We really needed this.