What's Wrong With This Picture?
Blue Note / EMI
Review by Scott Thomas:
In the opening title track, the singer, reclining on a sweet bed of bass clarinet, strings, and electric guitar, seems to be reassuring a lover that a picture “hanging on the wall” no longer represents the person she is with. “Take it down and / Just forget about it ‘cos that ain’t me at all,” he sings, but could this song also be directed at his fans with the “picture” being the odd man on the cover of his 1986 landmark No Guru, No Method No Teacher, the contemplative student of spirituality that many of us still want Morrison to be? “Don’t you understand,” he sings, “I left all that jive behind.” His tone is weary, almost pleading as if he is worn out from arguing the point again and again. Compare this to 1999’s Back on Top where he lashed out at his more zealous fans in New Biography, sent up his apparently cancelled spiritual quest in Precious Time, and posited, in Golden Autumn Day, a world so debauched with violence even music cannot save it.
In the jump blues of the second track, Whinin’ Boy Moan, he clues us in to what he views as the true role of the performer: “Let the whinin’ boy moan / If you don’t know how to do it yourself,” but if the job of the bluesman is to give voice to our troubles, Morrison unwittingly demonstrates how far removed he is from his audience. With the exception of the Meaning of Loneliness and the two excellent covers (St. James Infirmary and Stop Drinking), Morrison’s blues songs on What's Wrong With This Picture? are about the injustices, indignities, and invasions heaped upon the celebrity. Out of this group of songs, only Goldfish Bowl sticks because his vocal performance is so searing, it transcends the literal meaning of the lyrics. You feel what he means even if you cannot relate to the words on the page.
In essence, this is the key to appreciating the recent Van Morrison: don't expect to get exquisite music AND questing words. Expect less. If you use 1982’s Vanlose Stairway as your gold standard, then cliche-stuffed ditties like Evening in June and Once in a Blue Moon are tripe. If, however, you dispense with preconceptions, they are a pleasant listen.
This album does have one song that is superb without apology; The Meaning of Loneliness, a song about “existential dread.” Here Morrison’s blunt honesty pays off as he connects with anyone in his audience who has experienced depression. In fact, Morrison is well on his way to developing an impressive catalog on this subject from 1971’s Ordinary People as released on The Philosopher's Stone to the overlooked Melancholia from 1995’s Days Like This.
Review by Thom Jurek:
The title track that opens the album is as close to an anthem as Morrison's ever written; he states with an easy, swinging, jazzy soul groove that he is not the same person he once was and wonders why that was so difficult for others to accept. There is no bitterness or bite in his assertions. If anything, the question is asked with warm humor and amusement. If anything, the question is asked with warm humor and amusement as if it is indeed the listener's hangup if he/she can't accept Morrison "living in the present time." He asks, "Why don't we take it down and forget about it/'Cause that ain't me at all," as the song whispers to a close. Morrison's employment of a large horn section - actually a pair of them as the disc was recorded in different sessions - is full of teeth and big, bad soul. "Whinin Boy Moan" is a direct cue from Mose Allison as read by Big Joe Turner. Hard-swinging R&B horn lines (including his own alto saxophone) combine with killer solos by tenorman Martin Winning and trumpet boss Matt Holland as Morrison does his most inspired blues shouting since Wavelength. Celtic soul is never far behind, either, as it displays itself on the stunningly beautiful "Evening in June." The way Morrison employs brass, woodwind, and reed textures is unique for him as clarinets, alto and bass, flugelhorns, and loads of saxophones gradually build as the emotion in a tune imparts itself. Acker Bilk makes a return appearance here co-writing and performing on the elegant, bluesy swing of "Somerset." Other than this collaboration and stellar covers of "St James Infirmary" and Lightnin' Hopkins' "Stop Drinking" - the most unique and timely interpretation of the nugget since Louis Armstrong's, and it contains the greatest horn solo interplay on any Morrison record ever - Morrison's songwriting is more expansive, more intricate, and more luxuriant in its use of grooves, vamps, and riffs as they intertwine with beautiful horn charts, sophisticated melodies ,and the always-present blues feel.
There are 13 tracks here, and virtually all of them would be standouts on any of his other records. But the aforementioned tracks, along with "Meaning of Loneliness" and "Once in a Blue Moon," are among the finest tunes he's ever written, let alone recorded. This is the sound of an artist who is comfortable making a break with his past because it is not a break; he understands it as the next part of a continuum that goes deeper and wider than anyone else ever expected. This is the sound of self-assurance as it articulates itself with grace and aplomb.