Though he’s surrounded by friends including Jeff Beck, Georgie Fame and Chris Farlowe among others, Van Morrison sings the lonely blues on his 37th studio album.
Roll with the Punches includes five Morrison originals scattered among 10 covers written by diverse artists whose only common link is they’re no longer living. These include Bo Diddley’s “Ride on Josephine,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Automobile Blues” and Little Walter’s “Mean Old World.”
Morrison sets the tone early with his self-penned title track, a reworking of “Mannish Boy” that’s been done a million times before but still sounds fresh in this setting. What follows is an hour of classic 12-bar blues that includes a mashup of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” and Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue” (with Farlowe on vocals) and remakes of Count Basie’s “Goin’ to Chicago” (with Fame on keys and vocals) and Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” (with Beck on guitar). Squawking harps, screaming guitars and moaning organs keep the songs dark and powerful as Morrison and his guests sing passionately about how bad they’re feeling.
While much of the LP – like “Fame,” which is an updated rendition of “T.B. Sheets” – favors the style Morrison employed on his 1967 debut Blowin’ Your Mind!, he takes occasional detours to keep the album fresh and prevent it from drowning in the blues. “Transformation” recalls Morrison’s spiritual, Avalon Sunset period; “Too Much Trouble” is pop-jazz in the vein of “Moondance;” Bo Diddley’s “I Can Tell” is a garage rocker that would sound right at home on a Them album; and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “How Far from God” finds Morrison popping in to church to briefly repent for the behavior that made him so blue in the first place.
Fans might be disappointed that Morrison’s own compositions aren’t the focus here, as they were on 2016’s Keep Me Singing. However, the master songwriter proves himself to also be a master curator and arranger on Roll with the Punches, and his reliance on deep cuts from the deep past ensures this LP is filler-free and among the best of his 21st-century releases.