Home Read Classic Album Review: Van Morrison | Back On Top

Classic Album Review: Van Morrison | Back On Top

Van the Man's umpteenth album finds him pondering fame and looking for answers.

This came out in 1999 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Van Morrison’s gig in Winnipeg was undoubtedly the best thing that never happened last year.

I’m not just saying that to be cute; the show was very nearly a reality. You see, Morrison had to spend a night in the city while shuttling between gigs on both coasts. Naturally, a local promoter wanted him to perform. But he wasn’t able to work out a satisfactory deal with the notoriously irascible Irish soul brother — so Van the Man came to town, went about his business and moved on without a backward glance.

Which, when you think about it, also kind of describes the decades-long journey that has been Morrison’s career: He drops in out of the blue, gives us a brief glimpse into his world — all the while playing by his rules — then quickly vanishes again, chasing the next show, the next song, the next inspiration. It started with the first song on his first solo album. It was called Goodbye Baby; he’s been moving on ever since.

Photo by Art Siegel

Lately, though, Morrison’s eternal quest seems to be weighing on his mind. His latest disc Back On Top — his umpteenth album but first for his new label home EMI — finds him not only pondering fame and looking for answers, but wondering if it’s all been worth the trip.

“It’s the same old sensation / Isolation at the top of the bill,” Morrison confesses over the R&B organ of the title cut. “What do you do when you get to the top and there’s nowhere to go?” And no way to stop, as he suggests on Reminds Me Of You: “Seems like the spirit is pushing me onwards … Sometimes it feels like I’m going to hell.”

But if life is giving Morrison lemons, he’s making lemon gin. Like he says on The Philosopher’s Stone: “My job is turning lead into gold.” And he keeps his word: Despite their melancholy lyrics, these 10 tracks are some of his finest works of musical alchemy — his trademark secret formula of equal parts gospel, R&B, Chicago blues and folk, played with soulful vigor by his crack band.

In the end, it even seems intoxicating enough to lift Van out of his funk. Over the frat-rocky R&B of penultimate track Precious Time, he seems to embrace his lot: “Say que sera, whatever will be / But then keep on searching for immortality … Till hell freezes over and the rivers run dry.”

In other words — and just like he first said 25 years ago — it’s too late to stop now.