Review by Sophia Rahim
Van Morrison’s 38th album was released a mere three months after his 37th, Roll with the Punches, hit the shelves. It is surprising, therefore, just how well constructed Versatile is, with Morrison masterfully weaving together the old and the new, offering fresh reinterpretations of jazz standards alongside a number of original tracks.
What is most impressive about this album, however, is its sense of cohesion. Morrison’s own compositions blend so seamlessly with his covers of established classics that a first listen had me convinced that all of the tracks were originals. Even the famous ‘Unchained Melody’ becomes unrecognisable in Morrison’s hands, eliciting a heightened air of melancholy in contrast to the sugary sweet 1960s version by The Righteous Brothers. Morrison’s alterations are particularly effective in this instance, adding an extra level of emotional maturity to a tune that has become a little hackneyed in the years since its release.
Morrison’s changes don’t always work, however, with the meaning behind certain songs occasionally becoming lost in translation. This is evidenced in the final track on the record, in which the sultry and even mournful aspects of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ are side-lined in favour of a more upbeat tone. While pleasant to listen to, I couldn’t help but feel that some of the lyrics jarred with this cheery interpretation. Morrison’s jubilant delivery of the words ‘the way you haunt my dreams’ seemed a little incongruous, particularly when considering that the song is about the end of a love affair. My cat certainly seemed to like it, however, and was frequently to be found gazing avidly at my CD player, wagging his tail in time with the snare drums, and betraying a fervour for jazz that I had not previously suspected.
I can well understand his enthusiasm, since the album as a whole is extremely digestible and, perhaps most importantly, easy to dance to. I happened to be washing the dishes on my first listen, and was soon to be found pirouetting round the kitchen, Fred Astaire style, brandishing pretty much the entirety of the cutlery draw in the process. While my 20th Century jazz dancing abilities are, admittedly, non existent, I certainly had a lot of fun while finding that out (even if the dishes didn’t actually end up getting cleaned at the end of it).
As a whole, then, this is a highly enjoyable album that captures the energy and playfulness of jazz as a genre. While not quite marriage material, it is nevertheless worth taking on a few dates – preferably to an expensive, 30s themed restaurant with a resident swing band and a smoke machine.