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Van Morrison

Down the Road (Universal)

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Van Morrison is sounding fit and relaxed on this hearty exploration of soul. There's straight blues on "What Makes the Irish Heart Beat," high-stepping rhythm and blues on the wonderful narrative "Choppin' Wood," wistfulness with a chug on the rueful "Fast Train." There's hardly a weak cut (the exception is an indulgent cover of Ray Charles's "Georgia on My Mind"), and overall, the album is cohesive and satisfying.

Not all is bucolic here, though Morrison's mastery of pastoral rock shines on the gorgeous "Steal My Heart Away" and "The Beauty of Days Gone By." There's warm-heartedness and impatience -- its blend is one reason Morrison keeps his edge -- and a preoccupation with work: "Man Has to Struggle," a rumbling set of homilies leavened by an arch bridge, attests to Morrison's doggedness, while "Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?", an inquiry into rock footnotes Proby, Screaming Lord Sutch, and Scott Walker, winds up as wry commentary on Morrison's own position.

The music is terrific: Horns and strings and Hammond B3 cohabit with ease and sensuality. Morrison sings articulately, and the record navigates all kinds of textures, no sweat. It's tough and dreamy, and rocks so effortlessly, you'll want to revisit Morrison all the way back to Them.

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