With a new album just three months after his last release, Roll With The Punches, Sir Van Morrison proves that a rolling Irishman gathers no moss—even when he’s rolling through oft-treaded territory. While Punches featured covers of classic blues and R&B cuts by artists like Little Walter, Sam Cooke, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Versatile—Morrison’s 38th studio LP pays homage to another school of influence: the jazz standards that originally inspired him to sing. Original compositions are mixed in with classics from George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Frank Loesser, songs he surely heard over the old transistor while growing up in postwar Belfast, and eventually found their way into some of the most beloved parts of his catalogue, like “Moondance” and the masterpiece Astral Weeks.
This paying homage to influences seems to be a trend amongst legends of a certain age. Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney have all taken a crack at this era. Morrison has certainly earned the right, but do we really need another version of “I Get A Kick Out Of You”? Similarly, I think we can all agree that the definitive version of “Unchained Melody” was recorded years ago and will never be touched. But to be fair, Morrison diehards will revel in his understated rendition.
Not all of the covers feel unnecessary. On “Makin’ Whoopee,” Morrison’s delivery is suitably mischievous, winking over sleepy sax and velvety guitar comps. “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with its strolling, stand-up bass riff and carefree scatting sees Van the Man having the most fun of the album, gleefully taking a bite out of the familiar melody as he evokes mid-century cool. But it’s the originals that shine the most, a testament to the talent of a songwriter that has written a standard or two of his own.
“Start All Over Again” is as sunny and optimistic as the title, Morrison’s gift for melody and phrasing sonically parting the clouds. “Skye Boat Song,” a Scottish traditional that Morrison transforms with his own, metropolitan arrangement, is another standout. All brushes and elegant saxophone, it’s a buoyant instrumental that mixes folk and jazz in a way that feels like walking down a sun-dappled city street. The highlight of the originals is the sophisticated “I Forgot That Love Existed.” Swinging back and forth back and forth between the two moods that Morrison does best—blue melancholy and bright revelation. The switch is signaled here by a switch to double-time, as Morrison sings, “I forgot that love existed/And then I saw the light.”
His enunciation is a little less crisp—his 72-year-old jowls practically audible on “Let’s Get Lost” and “A Foggy Day”—but the mahogany richness and graceful agility are still there. Backed by a more-than-capable band and deftly produced by Morrison himself, the recordings are stone-hearth warm, a reflection of the nostalgia that’s inherent in every track. Just like the title suggests, the album provides ample support for the argument that Morrison is one of the most versatile musicians of all time. Not that anyone really has any business saying otherwise.