There are singers with better voices than Van Morrison's. But no one since Billie Holiday has sung with more inventive, more instinctive intelligence.
The human voice is an instrument like any other. The ability to sing high notes with authority is merely a technical skill, much like playing a string of 32nd notes on the guitar. By itself, neither is a sign of musical talent nor a guarantee of good music.
Too many singers approach their voice as a genetic given, merely the result of pouring emotion into sound. But Morrison uses his voice like an instrument, like a leather saxophone capable of hair-splitting nuances in tone, pitch, volume and rhythm -- capable of embellishment, solos and improvisations.
Morrison begins the title tune and first single from his latest album, Wavelength (Warner Brothers BSK 3212), with a whisper trembling with confidentiality. He fondles the word "wavelength" with delicate wisps of breath, filled with awe at the different frequencies lovers operate on.
He repeats the word so often -- judggling high notes like a soprano saxophone -- that it loses its dictionary meaning and approaches pure emotion. Finally the song breaks loose with an uncoiled guitar and decisive drum beat. Morrison shifts to tenor sax range and blows through the words with a distorted rumbling giving way to quick noted clusters and eventually to released, powerful wailing.
He sings: "I heard the voice of America/Callin' on my wavelength/Saying, 'Come back, baby, come back.'" He sings as if he could reconcile himself to his country, his radio, his woman if only the instinct of his voice could find that rhythm, that frequency. It does.
It's been a while since that instinct has found a precise emotional frequency on record. In 1974, Morrison released Veedon Fleece, an exquisite album that was so underrated it can now be found in bargain bins.
But he recorded nothing else until last year's A Period of Transition . The album was more of a holding pattern -- while the transition was going on -- than the result of any transition. The voice was there, but not the burning desire.
And now here is Wavelength, a classic Morrison album in the tradition of Moondance . Once again Morrison draws from rhythm and blues and mingles this music with his own Irish mediations.
A concentrated dose of his best soul singing is on "Kingdom Hall." The physical celebration is all in Morrison's voice, as much in his repeated "do do do" as in his lyrics about a Saturday night dance hall.
His rhythmic accents are so strong and intuitive that he seems to set the pace for the drums and bass. Most importantly, he sings with the desire and abandon that lead people to dance.
Every Morrison vocal reminds us that the voice is an instrument of the body; we can hear his breath scrape against his throat and break free from his lips. But as the album wears on, he gives that same physical grounding to increasingly reflective themes. This is a part of his talent: to combine the "good body music" of one lyric with the "beautiful obsession" of another, to create a spiritual rhythm and blues, as it were.
On the last song, "Take It Where You Find It," the Irish Morrison sings about the immigrant's paradox of high hopes and mixed blessings; he sings about "lost dreams and found dreams in America." He admits with a growl that a "change come over." As an angelic chorus chants that line, Morrison keeps repeating the same three words in different patterns and in different tones, each approach taking a stab at understanding the change.
Morrison's lyrics often have an understated charm, but his eloquent voice makes all lyrics secondary. On this album, he takes sets of words and through repetition, scat-singing and octave-shifting, invests them with tremendous feeling they never had on the page.
By the time Morrison murmurs "I love you in buckskin, yeah," on "Hungry for Your Love," he has created so much sexual tension by repeatedly growling the title words that the simple line becomes overwhelmingly erotic.
Morrison is well supported by a tight R&B quartet supplemented at times by female backing singers and guest musicians, including on three cuts, the Band's keyboard master, Garth Hudson. The many mood changes in Morrison's 10 compositions provide lots of room for vocal exploration.
Morrison realizes that a singer's main purpose is not to conquer particular notes, but to find notes that bring out the personality of a song. He doesn't twist a song out of its musical setting with obvious pants and groans, but, like a Robert De Niro of the microphone, uses his arsenal of vocal techniques to imply the full range of emotion.