Van Morrison

Down the Road

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After spending much of the 1990s expressing his bitterness with the modern world in albums like Hymns to the Silence and Days Like This, Van Morrison sought to overcome his bile toward the end of the decade, declaring himself Back on Top by 1999. (His fans concurred; the album was his highest-charting effort in more than 20 years and earned a gold record.) He then took an uncharacteristically long three years to make a new original album, though he produced two side projects, the live Skiffle Sessions: Live in Belfast 1998 and You Win Again, a duet record with Linda Gail Lewis, in between. Down the Road is not bitter, but it does look to the past continually and with longing. Musically, it mixes R&B and jazz with bits of country (especially on "What Makes the Irish Heart Beat") and folk, all conjured from the singer's 1950s youth. Lyrically, it deliberately makes use of blues clich├ęs and catch phrases to tell its tales of struggle, recollection, and regret. The album cover depicts the front of a record store, Music and Memorabilia, with a window full of LP covers by blues, R&B, jazz, and old rock & roll artists, and the music inside corresponds to that picture, in spirit if not always in style. A key song, and a curious one, is "Whatever Happened to PJ Proby?," in which Morrison identifies himself with trendy British pop singers of the early '60s, including Scott Walker and Screaming Lord Sutch. It's hard to imagine that he really thinks he belongs in their company, but he seems both sincere and pained as he concludes, "And whatever happened to me?" If such humility is sincere, it may help explain why Morrison has rejected the trappings of fame all these years, and it makes him all the more endearing.

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