Release Date: Mar 23, 2015
Record label: RCA
The subtitle of Van Morrison’s 35th (!) studio album is sure to generate groans from longtime fans. After all, classic artists of his generation who revisit and re-record their catalog, with or without guests, is a well-worn music industry cliché. It’s often either a desperate cash grab or an attempt to tread water waiting for inspiration to strike again.
Duets albums are often problematic for a number of reasons. Generally endeavored by aging musicians looking to reach a younger audience by pairing with contemporary pop stars with whom they have little to nothing in common, musically or otherwise, these sessions can be awkward at best and career-tarnishing train wrecks at worst. Carrying an unmistakable air of commerce, these quick cash-ins may look good on paper but rarely result in any sort of satisfactory artistic fruition.
The duets album is often a stroke session that involves a minimum of thought — but not for Van Morrison. Duets is as cantankerous and eccentric as any of the man's other projects. Rather than just bring in a few glossy names to decorate his greatest hits, he digs up deep cuts from mostly overlooked albums. (You won't find anything from Moondance or Astral Weeks here.) And his partners range from grizzled vets — Steve Winwood, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal — to surprise guests like Natalie Cole, Mark Knopfler and Michael Bublé.
Van Morrison has always operated in a world of his own. His genius as a singer comes in his ability to communicate both an uncommonly rich inner life and an extraordinary connection to the spiritual world. In other words, he’s not exactly Mr. Social.. That makes him an odd fit for a duets album ….
Van’s the man. Anyone who’s ever heard era-defining classics like Astral Weeks or Moondance would have a hell of a time denying it. Knowing that, the thought of Van Morrison, now 69 years old, trotting out an album full of duets with other stars in the soulful, easy listening world he lords over makes perfect sense. Rework some classics with the help of an A-list supporting cast? Why not? It seems like something Morrison might be up for at this stage in his career.
It's not hard to wonder if Van Morrison was trying to drive away listeners by titling this album Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue, a name that practically howls this is a work defined by a lack of ambition and a desire to rest on his laurels. The clumsy title is especially strange because this an honestly good album that doesn't fit those negative expectations. Even though Re-Working the Catalogue finds Morrison reviving songs from his extensive repertoire, he wisely focuses on lesser-known tunes rather than compete with his best-known work, and Morrison is able to generate a genuine enthusiasm for this music, which might not be the case if he tried to record "Moondance" or "Brown Eyed Girl" one more time.