Down The Road
Note that the European version of Down The Road has only 14 tracks - "Man Has To Struggle"
is not included (it is on the UK and US releases). No doubt the label has some obscure, self-serving
rationale for this...
Liner notes: (by Ben Sidran)
From the beginning, the seeker, the entertainer, the wanderer, bringing the news into town and then moving on down the road - the gypsy caravan - has haunted Van's songs. His road leads up into the mountains, where the cool breeze makes the squalor down below a distant memory, and it leads back down to New Orleans, to Chicago, to the fertile crescent, the heart of the matter, to the home of the blues.
The blues is the mother road story. Every road story is different and yet the same. "Saw a bus coming", Van sings, "and I had to get on it; still trying to find my own way back". What he calls "the lonesome homesick Jones" is where the blues begins and ends.
It's inevitable: the same gypsy voices that called you when you were a child, telling you to get on the bus, on the train, to move down the highway - Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, Ray Charles - hit the road, Jack! - thirty-five years later, these same voices now urge you to go back home. Don't lose the plot: remember why you came. The road, then, is a trap. You're always caught in the moment of primal love, half way to your destination, always half-way, never there, and no way back. This is the troubador blues that only the road can teach. The road is inside of you. It's a wound that won't heal.
And yet healing is what Van is all about. He works live, conjuring, incanting, calling down the blues, drawing up the heat from the moment. He's got the radio on and he's reaching into the invisible night, into the dark we all share. "Play me songs for the lonely ones", he sings, "play me something I know..." And anybody who has seem him work knows this is true: he's singing about his life. This is really the blues.
Van looks dead into the eyes of the future by looking over his shoulder, into the heart of the past. Half-way between where he started and where he's going, moving down the road. He wants to be clear about why we came, to maintain the standards of the trip. "There's not much to relate to anymore, unless you want to be mediocre", he sings in "Whatever Happened To PJ Proby?" He's making his way with a monkey on his back [the music], struggling to keep it real, to wake us up: "Whatever happened to the way it's supposed to happen?", he asks, "and whatever happened to me?"
What happened to Van Morrison is that he kept going, he didn't turn back, and in the end he has contributed hundreds of songs to keep us all going. In the end, its all about the songs, the gestures, the road singing itself awake, back to sleep, and then awake again. In the end, it's all about traveling, moving on down that road, space occupying time, living rough. "The road is longer than we thought", Van sings. Its nice to know somebody is still thinking.
Review by Scott Thomas:
Morrison's fixation with his own late childhood and early adolescence is the lode from which The Days Before Rock n Roll, Take Me Back, and other 90's era songs were mined, and in The Beauty of the Days Gone By, he proves that the vein can still yield treasures. While these earlier pieces sought to conjure the past through song and incantation, here the singer simply wants to explain what the fuss is all about. Morrison begins low down in his range where his voice is nearly a rumble: "When I recall just how it felt..." As the song unfolds, he guides us back to the very headwaters of his poetic imagery. We will be shown the mountain top of A Town Called Paradise and Hey Girl, the garden of Sweet Thing, and the railroad tracks of Cyprus Avenue, but first we arrive at to a moment that, for sheer emotive power, rivals the chorus of Into the Mystic: climbing up the scale, he sings, "I want to sing this song for you / I want to lift your spirits high..." We do not know who the "you" really is, but we assume Morrison is singing directly to us. (How far we've come from the audience bashing of Back on Top!) The lift in his voice persuades us that he is sincere and almost impatient that we should know what he knows. We give the singer our undivided attention even though we cannot possibly believe everything we are told. After all, the line "My memory it does not lie" is something that we, and even Morrison himself, know to be simply untrue. (Another example of a line too good to be true is "I believe in the future we shall suffer no more..." from Paul Simon's Cool, Cool River.) As the strings (with an emphasis on Jake Walker's viola) and Morrison's voice sketch in the past for us, he tells us directly why this is significant: "The beauty of the days gone by / It brings a longing to my soul / To contemplate my own true self / And keep me young as I grow old." The past cannot be retrieved so all we can do is long for it, Morrison seems to be saying, but longing produces music, keeps us in motion, wards off stagnation, and is an elixir against aging.
As if to prove his point, Down the Road's next track is a cover of the old warhorse Georgia On My Mind. At first blush, it seems perverse. If he felt compelled to cover a standard, why select one that is familiar to the point of cliche and was defined so resoundingly by Ray Charles? Could it be youthful arrogance? Shouting, scatting, tearing apart and reconstructing syllables and meter (at one point morphing a spontaneous "Hey now" into "Ray"), Van's voice sounds as elastic as it did back in 1973. For the length of the song, he is indeed young again.
The past, accessed through memory, is sometimes a place where we go to find out how we got where we are and, clearly, Morrison hasn't liked where he is for quite some time. In Back on Top, he blamed present irritants like the road, the fickleness of celebrity, and the demands of the press and his fans. Here, by glancing back at exemplars of the never famous and proto-famous and then moving forward to show us the formerly famous, Morrison manages to display compassion; a trait banished from his recent work, and shows us just how little control we have over our destinies. Choppin' Wood is Van's tribute to his music-loving father whose modest dreams were never of fame or even being a professional musician, but simply providing his family with a better life. Morrison applauds his father's resiliency for, even after his plans to bring his wife and child to America fell through, even though he ended up leading a life of "quiet desperation" in the docks of Belfast, his love of music remained undiminished.
The young singer in What Makes the Irish Heart Beat, Morrison's first bit of pure country since the Tupelo Honey album, has loftier ambitions, but, as we encounter him on the streets of the big city, is torn between heading back home and waiting around a little longer for "Lady Luck" to usher him into the "corridors of fame." For this song Morrison is probably drawing on a memory of coming to London from Belfast in the early 1960's, but its source could just as easily be his imagination. Whatever Happened to PJ Proby? on the other hand, seems autobiographical and is almost uncomfortably direct. With a baritone sax breeding a sense of unease, Morrison ponders the fate of less gifted fellow travelers from the 1960's, acknowledges a serious disconnect with the youth-oriented culture of 2002, and asks aloud, like a sleepwalker suddenly awake, how he got where he is. He knows he is in the wrong place, but is stuck: "I saw a bus coming / And I had to get on it / Still trying to find my way back." This echoes the singer in Down the Road who sings of "tryin' to find my way back home," but can only move forward. Down the Road, though, is cheerful and rides on the belief that somehow, somewhere down the road, the future will be the past. The singer in Whatever Happened to PJ Proby? operates under no such illusions: the past is gone.
The verb "had to" in the line quoted above is key to our understanding of this album. The compulsion was too strong: he had no choice but to get on the "bus," and, as we listen closely, we discover that there are few choices to be made in Down the Road. The man in Choppin' Wood fails even though Morrison reassures him; "You know you did the best that you could." The young man in What Makes the Irish Heart Beat seems programmed by his culture with a yearning for home and an equally strong lust for the road, but, if going home and giving up means living the life of the man in Choppin' Wood, what choice does he really have? He will stay in London. This sense of being completely unmanned by external forces is conveyed most powerfully in Fast Train. The train, like the song itself, is an example of false advertising. If the title leads you to anticipate the clickety-clack rhythms of The Orange Blossom Special, you will be disappointed. The song is slow...the fast train is not moving at all, broken down, off the rails. The singer does not have the means to fix the problem, to continue his own journey, but you get the sense that even if he had the mechanical skills and resources, even if this train were going somewhere, it would still be going nowhere. With Johnny Scott's slide guitar echoing the singer's increasing desperation, each thing that comes along only adds to his sense of helplessness: "You're way over the line / Next thing you're out of your mind, / And you're out of your depth / In through the window she crept."
Down the Road, Van Morrison's finest album in a decade, hides its considerable depth beneath a placid surface. The sound, like that of all Morrison recordings since 1991's Hymns to the Silence, strongly echoes the music of his youth. Atlantic-era Ray Charles, the Drifters, Sam Cooke, early James Brown, Bobby Bland, and a record shop window full of folk, blues, and R&B artists (see the CD's front cover photo) are all here. This means plenty of honking saxes and Hammond B-3. In the tradition of his very best work, Down the Road boasts an array of less obvious musical details that are revealed through multiple replays. We have the rolling bass in Meet Me in Indian Summer, the devastatingly gorgeous brass/woodwind arrangement in Steal My Heart Away (yet another first-rate Morrison love ballad), Bob Loveday's cranky violin in the otherwise witless Talk is Cheap (the album's only real blemish), and Richard Dunning's gushing piano solo in Only a Dream, a song which owes and acknowledges a debt to Johnny Cash's early Columbia hit Oh What a Dream. The newly awake singer in Only a Dream, who sings of a romantic encounter never really experienced, is the only person on Down the Road who seems happy with his actions and decisions ... perhaps because they had no consequences: "If I had to do it over / I'd do the same thing again / Because it was only a dream."
Full text of Polydor's press release:
The first release under the deal will be the single "Hey Mr. DJ" on May 6th 2002. [Ed: See also this complete list for more details on Van Morrison singles.] The brand new studio album Down The Road will follow on May 13th 2002.
This will be Van Morrison's second spell as a Polydor artist. His first release on the label was the 1989 classic Avalon Sunset, and he remained with Polydor until 1997, clocking up six Top 10 albums.
Universal chairman Lucian Grainge says: "We are delighted to welcome Van, one of the most influential contemporary artists in the world, back to Polydor."
Van Morrison's new material will be handled by marketing executive George McManus, the company's longest serving employee who has worked closely with Van for many years. Universal's hugely successful catalogue division will be responsible for the older titles. McManus says: "The new release will stimulate sales of Van's 30 catalogue albums, and with a separate division within Universal to look after this, we are in a great position to work both projects simultaneously."