Van Morrison - Pay the Devil
Review by John HalversonAfter his last few lackluster CDs, it was tempting to write Van Morrison's musical obituary. True, Pay the Devil--Van's venture into country music--may not be everyone's bottle of whiskey. Yet it's the grittiest, most spirited CD Van has cut in years. At first, an Irishman singing country seems like an oxymoron. But since Van's own life has seen its share of pain, he's right at home with country's musings on drinking and lost love. And his rugged, world-weary voice seems much more appropriate for country than jazz.
Since the early 90s, Morrison has nudged toward jazz and away from his roots in rock, blues and R&B. Since he's schooled in all sorts of music, he proved a serviceable mimic. Yet his genius is not as a balladeer. His genius is using the melancholy of an Irish poet and a voice grown gravely with age to take us to where the highest highs and the lowest lows come out as truth, art and wisdom. Judging from Pay the Devil, he still has a bit of that magic.
This is a country album, but nothing like you've heard since the '50s. The music on Pay the Devil is more Texas swing than the rock-tinged country of today. Most of the cuts are covers of songs done by the likes of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and George Jones. Yet unlike his recent jazz covers, where he seemed to imitate, he makes the cuts on Pay the Devil all his own.
He was brave enough to take on "Your Cheating' Heart" and not sound like Hank Williams. He made "Half as Much," a Patsy Cline classic, a song you'll hear in your head all day long. And "Things Have Gone to Pieces" has the wail of George Jones without being a carbon copy. The chords and sentiments of his two original songs--"This Has to Stop" and the title song--are drawn from the traditional country lexicon. Some reviewers said they were the weakest on the CD. I disagree. Instead of making an old sound new, Van made two new songs sound like classics.
Admittedly, not everything worked. "Don't You Make Me High" is a fun ditty but it came more naturally to Maria Moldier when she did it 30 years ago. And I can't get completely past the fact that country hasn't interested me since my drinking days and that was a long time ago. Still, I'm excited about Pay the Devil less for the music than what it may portend--that Van is on his way back.
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