“Rock’n’roll is about simplicity, sincerity and expressive power and there’s no way you can get away from that,” Van Morrison says about his new album of old classics. “That’s why it’s good and that’s why it’s lasted. It’s spirit music.”
Accentuate The Positive is a welcome recording from Morrison for a number of reasons. Firstly, his recent albums have, if anything, tended to accentuate the negative, with their occasional diversions into the world of conspiracy theory. Musically, too, they’ve avoided the long, passionate workouts of his best records, leaning heavily on his R&B roots (although those are pretty good roots to lean on). For some it’s a long way from the poetry and mysticism of Morrison’s best work (even if it is still away with the fairies). Still, things in Morrison’s world have always had a tendency to slouch towards Bethlehem in one form or another.
Either way, it’s something of a relief that Accentuate The Positive is, purely and simply, a covers album, a collection of songs taken mostly from the middle of the 20th century, arranged in the style of whichever R&B, country or rock’n’roll version means the most to him, and performed with the majestic casualness that only Van Morrison can bring to a song.
It’s to his credit – and entirely unsurprising as well – that at no point does Morrison do what most artists do with a record comprised entirely of cover versions, namely to bugger about with them until they are bloated and horrible. Instead he sticks closely to his favourite arrangements, but, being one of the great geniuses of popular music, also manages to make these hairy old oldies his own.
There’s a lot of material here, enough to fill a small jukebox, from a gorgeous take on You Are My Sunshine to a fantastic, knee-trembling Shakin’ All Over, and it all works. Morrison is like a guest on a musical chat show, turning these songs into musical anecdotes, perfectly illustrating the music that made him and that inspired him.
And the sense of fun which only rarely comes over in his work – songs like The Days Before Rock’n’Roll and Cleaning Windows – is still here in covers of Big Joe Turner’s Flip, Flop And Fly and, perhaps most surprisingly, Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny. Throughout, Morrison makes old songs sound new and brings the enthusiasm of a teenager to an old man’s record.