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Van Morrison - The Healing Game
(Polydor)

In the 1990s, Van Morrison has released more than six hours of great new studio recordings plus a live double CD, been actively involved in tribute albums to both Mose Allison and—less modestly—himself, and seen his first-ever Best Of collection become a ubiquitous dorm room staple. Among contemporaries who have been making music since the early to mid-1960s, only Neil Young has been similarly creative and consistent in recent times. And this dean of Irish singer/songwriters has done it all while adhering to impressively strict quality control standards. If his songs carried the political, social, or sexual "import" of a Cobain, a Reznor, or an NdegéOcello, and if the production sounded a little more like Beck, perhaps Van Morrison might rate as the most important artist of the 1990s.

As it stands, Morrison has been considerably more prolific in recent years than most artists half his age. None of his ’90s output has been sonically barrier-breaking, but the arrangements and production never fail to be sharp and complementary to the songs. He’s not on the cutting edge of technology, but his records sound good—so, as Miles Davis’ horn would say, "So what?"

Another day, another dollar; another year, another fine Van Morrison record. The Healing Game is, on one hand, just another volume in the continuing saga of a man whose lyrics are preoccupied with a love of music, a romantic lover, and a Christian God. By the same token, this ’97 release may be a shade more noteworthy than the other recent works upon which it builds. It wasn’t news when Cal Ripken, Jr. played a game at shortstop, or 100 straight games at shortstop, but when he strung together a couple thousand in a row, it was kind of a big deal. It’s sort of like that.

And he just keeps on doin’. Just like the way he can repeat the phrase "Talkin’ bout you" 20 or so times in a row at the end of "Fire In The Belly" and still leave you hanging on every syllable. Just like his fine harmonica on "Waiting Game" keeps blowing, and just like his perfectly nuanced vocals on all 10 songs here. It seems the more Van does something, the more intense it gets. Maybe it’s because he’s made albums like this one for some years now that this one seems like, if not quite the modern classic 1990’s spiritually engrossing Enlightenment was, then certainly stronger than most, and anything but a rehash.

Morrison does tread water occasionally; anti-music biz rants have become a bit too much of a staple of his recent work, though Game’s "It Once Was My Life" is probably the cheeriest entry to date in his subgenre of disgruntled songs. Also, the rampant overuse on all 10 tracks of fellow Irish singer Brian Kennedy—whose voice often rushes to echo the precise words Morrison just sang—is overused just as he was on Van’s 1995 Days Like This. That the greatest creative weakness of such a notorious control freak is revealed during the moments when he shares the spotlight is an irony which should not be lost.

For the most part, though, it’s clear who’s in control. While keyboardist Georgie Fame and other Van regulars make invaluable musical contributions to The Healing Game, this is ultimately the work of a singular artist whose vision is as startling as his prolificness. A true portrait of this busy artist as a middle-aged man would be awfully hard to paint; when does he stand still?

YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1997