Back On Top
Virgin/Point Blank 7243 8 47148 2 6
Review by Scott Thomas:
We begin with a thump. Goin Down Geneva is a roadhouse blues that features a slapped rockabilly bass, heated guitar, and a frenzied piano solo tearing into Jerry Lee Lewis territory. The lyrics lament the rootless life of the musician and the fleeting nature of fame. Morrison continues this theme in the excellent soul ballad The Philosopher's Stone where we are told that the musician's job is "turning lead into gold". In order to do this, he is compelled to leave his warm bed and take to the snowy highway in search of the Philosophers Stone, a mysterious substance that transforms base metals into the most precious metal of them all. There is no magic in alchemy, the singer tells us, just hard work and the exhausting quest for something rare. The song is driven by Morrison's intense vocals, the empathetic interplay between pianist Fiachra Trench and organist Geraint Watkins, and the strings that arrive halfway through to bring the song to a potent climax.
Van does not stop here. The albums two most alluring numbers, Back on Top and New Biography, are both radio-friendly complaints about the burden of fame, the latter attacking fanzines, biographers, and Internet discussion groups all to the tune of Sam Cooke's Having a Party. This obsession is even woven into the fractured narrative of High Summer. As in Bulbs, Sense of Wonder, and Rough God Goes Riding, Morrison deliberately divorces the underlying story of High Summer from its context so we can only guess at the circumstances. We can clearly glimpse a man, "a light out of the darkness", being persecuted by a narrow-minded crowd which the singer sarcastically labels "the many chose few". They see the man as "Lucifer". Since the opening images are those of wealth (i.e.; a mansion and a red sports car) and the man seems to inspire the hatred of many, I believe Morrison is pining over the violated private life of another misunderstood celebrity.
By my calculation, 50% of Back on Top laments, in one way or another, the terrible weight borne by those lucky (or luckless) enough to be famous. There has always been this frustration in Morrison's work going way back to the record company reception in St. Dominic's Preview. When he amplified this theme in Why Must I Always Explain? and Not Feeling It Anymore from Hymns to the Silence, it seemed boldly confessional, but as songs like Big Time Operators, This Weight, and Songwriter followed with each successive album, Van seemed to have less and less in common with the working stiffs who bought his albums. Instead, he was becoming the spokesman for Mick Jagger, Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, and anyone else who had paid the price of fame, a protest singer for the privileged few.
One thing we working stiffs appreciate are love songs, and there are three good ones here. With scenes illuminated by street lamps and a dilatory tempo, In the Moonlight occupies the same emotional space as The Flamingoes' I Only Have Eyes for You, but instead of aping doo-wop, as Morrison did on It Once Was My Life from The Healing Game, he does it here on his own terms: the doo-wop vocals are introduced in the last fifteen seconds and disappear with the song as fleeting and haunted as the relationship the lyrics describe. Indeed, despite images of visitations in rooms and meetings in lamplight, an air of longing and melancholy pervades In the Moonlight as though the lovers are sleepwalking right past each other. This feeling is underscored by Mick Green's fluid, but desolate guitar solo and Watkins' pensive organ.
When the Leaves Come Tumbling Down is Morrison's attempt at a classic pop ballad in the mold of Misty and How Long Has This Been Going On?, and it has all the ingredients; a beautiful melody and poetic lyrics filled with images of autumn, Paris, and Chet Baker. The string arrangement is tasteful, Morrison's singing supple and understated: one can easily imagine Tony Bennett performing this classy number, but even he would be hard-pressed to outdo Van. This is a great one.
Reminds Me of You, equally masterful but very different, has the slow-burning intensity of Sam Cooke's Bring It on Home to Me. The church-like organ brings out gospel undercurrents, but the fire comes from the simmering harmonies of Morrison and Brian Kennedy.
Still waiting for Van to make a philosophical statement, to clue you in to where he is at spiritually like he used to back in the 80s? Well, just when you thought Back on Top was winding down, here comes Precious Time. Precious Time is an elaborate joke, a kiss-off to fans still waiting for Morrison to write a sequel to In the Garden, or both. While the music is Fats Domino at his most jovial, replete with swaggering sax solos, the lyrics take no prisoners in relaying bad news to would-be spiritual seekers: we are all heading to the graveyard. Furthermore, "there is no rhyme or reason, no master plan, / No Nirvana, no promised land". Since "it doesnt matter to which God you pray", the singer tells us, you may as well sit back and enjoy the music. Morrison's greatest work has a yearning, searching quality, but this song delivers its poison letter without apology and with an almost confrontational baldness. The song is, of course, a failure because, like matter and anti-matter, the music and lyrics destroy each other.
After Precious Time, Golden Autumn Day seems reassuring. Fats has left the room: the music here is stately. The first stanza, though laced with images of failure met with stern persistence, is followed by a chorus that invokes the familiar beauty of nature: "I'm takin' in the Indian Summer / And I'm soakin' it up in my mind / And I'm pretending like its paradise". Pretend. This is a significant and troubling word for a man who has always sung about Paradise as if it were in everyone's grasp. The stanzas that follow are rife with images of senseless violence and fantasies of retribution, as dark as Morrison has ever gotten, but as the song ends, it seems like music will once again bear us into the light: we hear Van singing the phrase "golden autumn day" over and over with Pee Wee Ellis's sax threading lovely notes through the string section, but then, like skin from a corpse, all of this falls away leaving only the sawing of the skeletal strings.
Review from MOJO (UK) no. 64:
To the younger end of the market, Van Morrison must resemble one of those rugged, ancient stones that still dot the landscape of his beloved Celtic West. But what the hell does he stand for now? Back on Top will satisfy fans who've stuck with Van's low key efforts of recent years. The longer term disciples will bask in its pleasurable echoes of old songs: the mansions on the hillsides, the obscure allusions to Geneva, William Blake and 'backstreet jelly roll'. Even so, there are developments in evidence. And they're not jolly. The record has just two tracks with an upbeat feel, and they're both profoundly bleak at heart. The opener 'Goin' Down Geneva' is a rollockin' pub-rock boogie, but it describes a travelling musician "my heart was filled with pain" playing dead end gigs in Europe. Then there is 'Precious Time', jaunty with a blue-beat bounce but veined with pessimism. The loneliness of the long distance artist is the album's recurring theme. In 'The Philosopher's Stone he sings "My job is turning lead into gold". 'New Biography' is a swipe at writers who presume to know him, and the fans who run websites in his honour (!) . There is also romance in the beautiful utterances of 'When the Leaves Come Falling Down' and downright strangeness in 'Golden Autumn Day', wherin a man attacked by two muggers tries to overcome his depression and fantasises about flogging his assailants. But most of all there is gloom. 'Reminds Me of You' is the great love song here, and it's a song of love lost. "Sometimes it seems I'm going to Hell", he concludes. Restless, disappointed, heartbroken. We can only hope the real-life Van is not in the place he's singing about. For Back on Top sounds anything but.
Curious tidbits department: