Sharps and Flats

Stephanie Zacharek reviews Van Morrison's "The Healing Game".

Published April 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

if your bullshit detector is functioning at any kind of acceptable level, you're probably pretty skeptical of a record called "The Healing Game." Even if it's by Van Morrison -- or maybe especially because it's by Van Morrison. Because even those of us who love him ferociously -- unreasonably, some might say, since his most miraculous records, among them "Veedon Fleece" and "Astral Weeks," are a good 25 years behind him -- sometimes find his born-again flights of fancy a little too heavy-handed and preachy. Or sometimes just too kooky.

But despite the dorkiness of its name, "The Healing Game" really does have a subtle kind of power. It doesn't have the crazy, haphazard brilliance of 1991's "Hymn to the Silence," a maddeningly irregular treasure, but among the best of Morrison's latter-day work. "The Healing Game" is a good early-morning record, suitable for easy-does-it 5 a.m. sunrise watching, but it's also perfect for dusk, the time of day when the light looks just so and lulls you into thinking more about where you've been than where you're going. There's lots of silkiness in the arrangements. They're light and rippling and triumphant, like flags in the sun. The songs draw inspiration from doo-wop, gospel, classic R&B and teenager-in-love ballads. They're like miniature tributes to all the things Morrison loves. Horns drift and peak like sand dunes. Organ lines shuffle like dusky shadows behind gospel-style vocals. "The Healing Game" is the kind of record that wins you over slowly and deliberately, but surely. Before you know it, you've slipped right into its embrace, and you'd rather be there than anywhere in the world.

The key to "The Healing Game" -- next to its easy, floating sound -- is that even though Morrison's big on inspiration with a capital "I," he's almost always melancholy enough to make it work. "This Weight" is a chiffony breeze of R&B, but Morrison gives it gravity and depth without dragging it down. "This weight is weighing on my soul/Just won't leave me alone," he sings, but the trick is, he doesn't sound oppressively world weary at all. The words are as intimate as a whisper between two lovers, and their restraint gives them even more resonance.

And, of course, there are those times when the
words make almost no sense at all ("I am the
observer who is observant/I am the brother of the
snake/I am the serpent filled with venom/The god
of love and the god of hate"), but that's Van for
you. And sometimes a lyric that you at first think
is simply very, very bad actually ends up growing
on you quickly. "And you make me think what it's
all about .../And I watch you run in the crimson
sun/Tear my shirt apart, open up my heart," he
sings on "Burning Ground." Kind of overwrought,
maybe. But haven't you ever felt that your heart
was so close to the surface that your shirt was the
only thing between it and the world -- the only
armor you had? It's kind of wonderful to think that
even after all these years, Morrison still falls for
all that moony-eyed mystical romanticism, hook,
line and sinker. God love him for it.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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