Van Morrison, very sadly, is no longer Van The Man. More Van the Curmudgeon. But curmudgeon doesn’t rhyme. However, Van the Also-Ran does. A bit harsh? Maybe. Though a procession of erratic (and, in the case of Latest Record Project: Volume 1, irascible) albums, probably since 2016’s Keep Me Singing, hardly offer a robust defense.
Oh, but when he was The Man, he was good. Real good. In his ’70s pomp Van Morrison was on a whole other wavelength (if you will). High on that amorphous thing we call soul, he made us high too on the likes of Moondance, Tupelo Honey and Veedon Fleece. And then there was Into the Music, a collection that accommodated the instantly irresistible “Bright Side of the Road” and “Full Force Gale,” as well as the deeper dives “And the Healing Has Begun” and “It’s All in the Game.”
The latter has quite the intriguing history. Its lyrics were penned by Carl Sigman to the tune “Melody in A Major,” composed by Charles G. Dawes, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and US Vice President under Calvin Coolidge. Tommy Edwards took it to number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1951. Seven years later, he re-recorded the track with a more rock’n’roll arrangement and it peaked at number one, a zenith he never managed to scale again. “It’s All in the Game” has been covered by Bing Crosby, Donny and Marie Osmond, Merle Haggard and Keith Jarrett.
But none of them shimmers with the spirit of Morrison’s version, a sprawling, delicate thing that reaches deep down inside to reveal an awed artist that’s in delightful contrast to the belligerent bugger that, apparently, is the man himself. You don’t so much listen to his channelling of “It’s All in the Game” as become spellbound by it. This is music at its most pure, doing one of those things that music is supposed to do – making you feel, intensely.
But don’t take my word for it. The occasionally opaque, but always compelling, Greil Marcus refers to it as the yarragh in his critique, Listening to Van Morrison. This beautiful Irish word – so much more than a word, indeed, more a sensation – was introduced to wider world culture by Ralph J. Gleason in his 1970 review of Morrison’s popular magnum opus Moondance. He wrote, “I saw a film version of John McCormack, the Irish tenor, playing himself. In it, he explained to his accompanist that the element necessary to mark the important voice off from the other good ones was very specific. ‘You have to have,’ he said, ‘the yarragh in your voice’.”
Marcus developed the concept further in his book. To get the yarragh for Morrison, he posits, “you may need a sense of the song as a thing in itself with its own brain, heart, lungs, tongue, and ears. Its own desires, fears, will, and even ideas: ‘The question might really be’, as he [Morrison] once said, ‘is the song singing you?’ His music can be heard as an attempt to surrender to the yarragh, or to make it surrender to him; to find the music it wants; to bury it; to dig it out of the ground.”
On “It’s All in the Game” Morrison surrenders to the yarragh like a man surrendering to love, plain and simple. Love of an other, love of a creator, love of humanity (eh, unlikely!), love of life, love of love itself – who really cares when the effect is to move you like this? Which is what he can do. Or what he used to do. Think of – no, play! – “Haunts of Ancient Peace,” “And the Healing Has Begun,” or the mighty “Listen to the Lion” and tell me I’m wrong.
And he certainly does it on “It’s All in the Game.” Sigman’s lyric is essentially the proffering of good counsel on matters of the heart from a sagely protagonist. There’s an inherent sweetness in it – things aren’t always so magical, there are times when he’ll be a bit of a bastard, but he’ll make it up to you with a cheap bunch of flowers and a cheeky kiss, reminding you of why you fell for the fool in the first place. But Morrison abjures sagacity for solicitousness. There’s a lustiness in his delivery that could be creepy but comes over, incongruously, as chaste instead.
The song’s arrangement is a high wire act of restraint – of gentleness – piano and violin nestling up to each other with rapt affection, the melody rippling silver, Morrison abandoning himself – you can hear him exhaling in wonder, you can hear him sigh, you can even hear him laugh. He is flying, just like he did on Astral Weeks. There have, of course, been moments of flight since then, but none as concentrated as on that masterwork. On “It’s All in the Game,” the flight ascends to its apotheosis on the whispered coda before segueing into the equally consuming “You Know What They’re Writing About,” best described by Laura Barton in The Guardian as “a sublime six-minute rumination on love, creativity, electricity, devotion, desire and the sheer weltering force that carries us forward”. For Graeme Thomson, in Uncut magazine’s ultimate guide to Morrison, “It’s All in the Game” and “You Know What They’re Writing About” represent the whole rather than two separate entitles. He refers to it as “an 11-minute act of exploration”, pointing out that the unedited studio take ran for half an hour, “a vaulting exercise in musical telepathy, the entire band locked in tight, following each twist as Morrison takes a stately love song by the scruff of the neck and turns it into a jubilant, spontaneous hymn to love itself.”
For me, “It’s All in the Game” is a paean to Van The Man and his particular kind of magic. So, one of a kind, and there are many of that kind. He doesn’t have to be The Man anymore – he has nothing to prove. It’s all in the canon.