Van’s the man. Anyone who’s ever heard era-defining classics like Astral Weeks or Moondance would have a hell of a time denying it. Knowing that, the thought of Van Morrison, now 69 years old, trotting out an album full of duets with other stars in the soulful, easy listening world he lords over makes perfect sense. Rework some classics with the help of an A-list supporting cast? Why not? It seems like something Morrison might be up for at this stage in his career.
But here’s the trick: Morrison isn’t using Duets: Re-working the Catalogue as an excuse to cash in on the songs that made him famous over four decades ago. Instead, it’s billed as a platform for celebrating the tracks fans may have overlooked over the years. The weighty 16-song collection covers a lot of ground, with tracks dating as far back as 1970 (“If I Ever Needed Someone”) and as recent as 2012 (“Born to Sing”, from that year’s Born to Sing: No Plan B). It’s an interesting premise, but unfortunately one that Morrison doesn’t give into fully.
Despite its title, Morrison doesn’t bother himself much with reworking his songs from their original versions. “Some Piece of Mind”, which pairs the singer with the late Bobby Womack, latches onto the 1991 original note for note, with Womack’s role relegated to fragmented verses and other vocal flourishes. The same can be said for “If I Ever Needed Someone”, which doesn’t take enough advantage of Mavis Staples’ services. There are sparks, such as the addition of Mark Knopfler’s muscular vocal on “Irish Heartbeat”. But, ultimately, it’s Van’s show, and while he sounds perfectly in his element here, that’s actually part of the problem. By not leaning more on its crack staff of guest stars, Duets proves too safe and easy to live up to its name.
Essential Tracks: “Born to Sing”, “Irish Heartbeat”