Release Date: Dec 1, 2017
Record label: SMG
I t's evidently too late to stop now for Van Morrison. Just three months after Roll With the Punches, a record of the blues, he's put out his 38th studio album. Versatile is a curious little joy of a record - largely standards from the pre-rock golden age of American songwriting, supplemented with a handful of Van originals (some rerecorded, some new - Take It Easy Baby's opening chords bear a startling resemblance to the theme from Police Squad, itself a Count Basie pastiche).
With a new album just three months after his last release, Roll With The Punches, Sir Van Morrison proves that a rolling Irishman gathers no moss--even when he's rolling through oft-treaded territory. While Punches featured covers of classic blues and R&B cuts by artists like Little Walter, Sam Cooke, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Versatile--Morrison's 38th studio LP pays homage to another school of influence: the jazz standards that originally inspired him to sing. Original compositions are mixed in with classics from George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Frank Loesser, songs he surely heard over the old transistor while growing up in postwar Belfast, and eventually found their way into some of the most beloved parts of his catalogue, like "Moondance" and the masterpiece Astral Weeks.
No one would accuse the prolific Van Morrison of being stingy with his recorded output, but this, his 38 th album, comes just over two months after his previous release. Granted both are dominated by covers -- September 2017's Roll With The Punches tackles blues and soul classics, Versatile from November of the same year revisits jazz and vocal standards -- but they also include a handful of newly penned originals. And even if he's not singing with the unbridled passion of his younger years, evident on 1973's career highpoint It's Too Late To Stop Now tour recordings, neither is he phoning it in.
Versatile is Van Morrison's 38th album, and follows the release of the excellent R&B and blues covers collection Roll with the Punches by less than three months. Like its predecessor, it's primarily a covers set, but its focus is on jazz and pop standards from the Great American Songbook with six originals added for good measure. Historically, these experiments haven't worked for rock artists: Rod Stewart delivered five overblown, badly sung collections from the canon, and Bob Dylan delivered five discs of highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the stuff.
Both of Van Morrison's 2017 albums, Roll with the Punches and its follow-up, Versatile, find the legendary soul conjurer departing from his tried-and-true, alchemic blend of earthy R&B and far-out mysticism, instead focusing on the roots music traditions he was raised on. But that's where the similarities end: Roll with the Punches is a raucous set of electric blues songs, while Versatile is a jaunt through the Great American Songbook, supported by a laidback swing band. Sadly, where the former album finds Morrison sounding more invigorated than he has in years, the latter is rote and low-energy.