The Healing Game
Polydor 31453 7101 4/2
Review by Scott Thomas:
"Fire in the Belly," a mid-tempo love song as well-crafted as anything on Moondance, seems to lighten things up, but here the singer is restless and impatient: "Got to get through January / Got to get through February..." It is almost like Morrison is hungry again, ready and eager to challenge himself, sick to death of churning out mediocre, holding pattern albums like Too Long in Exile and Days Like This. In addition to their mediocrity, these albums lacked any kind of inner logic or consistency of vision both cherished hallmarks of Morrison's recorded output. Such criticisms cannot be leveled against The Healing Game. Clearly, the opening track ("Rough God Goes Riding"), the middle track ("Burning Ground"), and the closing track ("The Healing Game") were conceived as barn-burners, major compositions of serious import which, at least in terms of the writing, is exactly what they are. The songs that come between serve to conduct the listener to and away from these impressive landmarks. It is any wonder, then, that the album seemed a triumphant return to form at the time of its release?
In reality, The Healing Game is the rarest of animals: a Van Morrison album where (mostly) good material is stunted by weak performances. Van himself seems to be suffering from some kind of vocal affliction, perhaps a head cold, perhaps exhaustion, that makes him sound hoarse. The effect is variable. On "Rough God Goes Riding," Morrison's ravaged voice is the perfect vehicle for scenes of disorder. On "Burning Ground," another song about renewal purchased with violent change (in this case, the agent is flame), Van's ashen voice is doused by the horns and backup vocals, and the song's bid for magnificence is duly snuffed.
Perhaps to compensate for his ailing leader, backup singer Brian Kennedy has an expanded role. While Morrison and Kennedy's call-and-response vocals were novel and interesting on Days Like This, here they are tiresome. When they sing in unison, the older man's weakened pipes are simply overwhelmed.
The album suffers from another problem that is also unprecedented: the performances are oddly sterile as if the musicians were automatons programmed to record the next Van Morrison album. This is perplexing given the fact that these are the same musicians who witlessly, but humanly slopped their way through How Long Has This Been Going On.All of this, when coupled with the monochromatic packaging, leaves an impression of bleakness... the furthest thing from healing.