Van Morrison, Accentuate the Positive: upmarket pub rock from a man still capable of so much more

Van Morrison
Van Morrison - Bradley Quinn

Accentuate The Positive is Van Morrison’s 45th album, his 12th in the past 10 years, and his second this year. The great Northern Irishman clearly likes to sing, and at 78 still boasts a voice that glides between notes, with a timbre and phrasing completely his own, soulfully released into the music.

Following Moving On Skiffle, in which Morrison sang covers of the 1950s skiffle songs that first ignited his love of music, he has made an album of rock’n’roll covers, featuring songs by Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner and more. “Rock’n’roll is about simplicity, sincerity and expressive power,” says Morrison. “It’s spirit music.”

If you walked into a crowded bar and heard Morrison’s slick combo, you might think you were witnessing one of the greatest pub rock bands in history. There’s a swinging horn section, noodling Hammond organ, a jolly rhythm section of drums, walking bass and country jazz guitar, all adorned by female backing vocalists chipping in “oohs” and “aahs” while Morrison sails effortlessly over the top of familiar standards. But does anyone really need to hear another version of Little Richard’s Lucille, performed with none of the original’s sexually electrifying energy, as if it were just a chirpy singalong? Where’s the spirit in that?

These songs would have been oldies by the time young Van the Man was getting started on the Belfast scene, thrilling listeners with the dramatic attack of his garage blues rock band Them. Somehow, the nostalgia he feels for rock’n’roll has clouded his appreciation of just why it inspired such fervour in the first place. Several songs (including You Are My Sunshine and Red Sails in the Sunset) reach back to the lighter energy of mainstream American swing pop, and the fact that Morrison has wrapped them into his oldies celebration is telling. The title track (composed by Johnny Mercer as Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive in 1944) was originally recorded by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. If that’s rock’n’roll, I’ll eat my blue suede shoes.

But let us take our lead from the title. Sea of Heartbreak (originally recorded by country singer Don Gibson in 1961) is given a lean jazzy makeover, with Morrison interweaving sinuously with his backing singers. Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, 1960) is a moody spin on the spirited original, with slinky guitar and yearning vocal phrasing. The late Jeff Beck contributes a spine-tingling guitar solo to the Johnny Burnette Trio’s 1956 rockabilly romp Lonesome Train, while old English soul man Chris Farlowe’s growling duet vocal serves unfortunate testament to just how well preserved Morrison’s voice actually is.

Everybody sounds like they’re having fun, and listeners of a certain vintage probably will too. But it adds little of interest to Morrison’s incredible canon, which from Blowin’ Your Mind in 1967 to Irish Heartbeat in 1988 ranks with the greatest popular music ever made. These are heights that Morrison is still capable of touching when he’s in the mood to extend himself beyond the nostalgic cheer of upmarket pub rock.

Out now on Exile Music