Van Morrison, "Keep Me Singing" (Caroline Records)
When Van Morrison's fiercest critic likes his work it's easy to tell. There's an audible murmur of approval, and it comes from the man himself.
It's the sound Morrison makes when he's into the music. He does it a few bars into "Let It Rhyme," the opener to "Keep Me Singing" — an early hint that this might be his best album since "The Healing Game" nearly two decades ago.
With playful references to past lyrics, nods to heroes like Sam Cooke and Chet Baker, and heartfelt singing throughout, Morrison harkens back to the gentle, wistful spirit that made him Hollywood's go-to guy for movie soundtracks. He's in a better mood than on other recent albums, and it's easy to imagine songs like "Every Time I See a River," written with lyricist Don Black, or "In Tiburon," a name-dropping homage to the San Francisco Bay, playing as credits roll.
Morrison, who just turned 71, has penned good songs in recent years, but no album has approached the bursts of sustained brilliance that established him as one of the world's great songwriters. And this one doesn't soar to the heights of "Moondance," ''Astral Weeks" or "Into the Music."
But an older, less audacious Morrison can still soothe the soul when he is into the music — and he won't be the only one murmuring his approval this time.