Pay the Devil, an album-long foray into country music, shouldn't come as a surprise to Van Morrison fans. It's a logical extension of his love affair with American music. Certainly blues, R&B, soul, and jazz have been at the forefront, but one can go all the way back to the Bang years and find "Joe Harper Saturday Morning," or songs on Tupelo Honey that touch country. More recently, You Win Again, with Linda Gail Lewis, offered two Hank Williams tunes and "Crazy Arms." The Skiffle Sessions with Lonnie Donegan offered traditional Southern tunes including Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues." Morrison's lyrics have also referenced country music blatantly. Pay the Devil comes from direct sources of inspiration: his father's skiffle band and Ray Charles' historic forays into country on the two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. The evidence lies in three cuts on this disc, all of which Charles recorded: Curley Williams' "Half as Much," Art Harris and Fred Jay's "What Am I Livin' For," and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." Morrison's a cagey one: his own mercurial versions of these nuggets are more traditional than those of Charles, yet are steeped in similar production styles that offer a clear nod to the late artist. While there are no horns on Pay the Devil, the layers of strings on top of "fiddles" and honky tonk pianos -- as well as earlier pedal steel styles -- are giveaways. And then there is the voice. Like Charles, Morrison is a soul singer no matter what he sings and he digs into these tomes with fire and the uncommon sweetness of tone and limited timbre that Charles did. But Morrison re-creates these tunes in his own image too.
Recorded in Belfast with his own band, Pay the Devil flows seamlessly from start to finish over 15 cuts. It opens with a killer read of "There Stands the Glass," which is brave considering it's synonymous with Webb Pierce (one of two here -- the other is "More and More"). It's drenched in pedal steel, electric guitar, and a pair of basses. The fiddle floats just above the upright piano and a swell of strings in the bridge. It drips with a swaggering loneliness and gets the full weepy treatment with Geraint Watkins' piano solo. "Things Have Gone to Pieces," written by Leon Payne, is full of wasted self-pity and honky tonk desolation. Once more it's a daring move given how closely associated the song is with George Jones. In the grain of his lionhearted voice, Morrison tears it back to its essence as a country-blues song. Morrison outdoes himself on Clarence Williams' "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," turning it into a rockabilly shuffle. Billy Wallace's "Back Street Affair" is full of barroom soul. Bill Anderson's "Once a Day" is given the full '60s countrypolitain treatment here, with strings and a full backing chorus that could almost be the Anita Kerr Singers. "What Am I Living For" is a tune closely associated with Conway Twitty in his prime. Morrison's version touches on the original but brings it home to Belfast.
In addition to the classics, there are three originals here as well. There's the rollicking hillbilly blues of "Playhouse" that growl like the young Conway Twitty and Johnny Horton did. Then comes the misleading title track. Unable to let his discontent stay out of his records, Morrison once again assails those who would pigeonhole his music, to the tune of a laid-back, shuffling country stroll. "This Has Got to Stop" is the finest of the three. It's proof that Morrison can write a solid, traditional honky tonk song worthy of a Jones, or a Don Gibson. His vocal digs into the lyrics and sets it in the blanket of the deceptively loose barroom-styled accompaniment. The set closes with a deeply emotional read of Rodney Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again." Paul Godden's lonesome dobro is the engine that guides it emotionally. Bob Loveday's violins add painterly touches to the Watkins piano in the foreground and the guitars fill the rest. Godden's pedal steel pleads the country tradition, but Morrison's singing is so full of sadness, ache, and regret that it actually closes the gap between it and soul music as the record whispers to a shimmering, whispering close. Pay the Devil is at the crossroads of country, blues, and soul. In his voice is the authority to bring them together. No matter how restless and inconsistent he can be because of his obsession with perfection, Morrison is capable of being inspired enough to let his muse guide him toward something approaching greatness. Pay the Devil is proof .