Tribute to the influences of those early days is a commendable experience if done right. Bob Dylan rediscovered the great American songbook. Bruce Springsteen tested himself with an album that put his voice, for the first time, at the front of his music. Van Morrison, whatever his reason for these covers, brushes through with a twenty-three-track compendium of wavering quality. His strong voice in the twilight years wasted, defended as a man who can do no harm now that his legacy is intact. But Moving on Skiffle and the fractures that begin to show on the big-band emptiness, give that aftermath of quality a sour taste. Light, hollow and half-baked. Sleepy, sloppy blues functionalities without the soul that gives those tracks their meaning and placement in history.
Considering the vastness of Moving on Skiffle, the chances of at least a handful of decent tracks were considerable. But Streamlined Cannonball summarises this best. Morrison streamlines the classic songs that influenced him or that he now feels a particular connection to, and the cannonball effect leaves splinters and bastardised blues covers scattered around the place. Half of the tracks from Moving on Skiffle are empty, Randy Newman-styled ventures that cover classic tracks from Bessie Smith and Uncle Dave Macon to an acceptable quality. Sail Away Ladies is a key example of what goes wrong for Moving on Skiffle. It is hard to believe there is any fiery passion behind these tracks. All the pieces come together with a nod toward what was before it, but no track here makes for anything more than a hollow flow John Candy’s band in Home Alone could rattle out.
Placement is a crucial part of any cover piece. Morrison provides no reason beyond a passing interest in covering some of his favourite tracks. There is no change to the form as Dylan or LCD Soundsystem had previously provided to the songs that shaped them. Standards are as standards do, and the uninspired core of this removes any of the moving flickers. They are found on the superior originals. Richard Hawley’s cover of Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man is a perfect example. Enough of an inflexion of his unique voice, enough respect for the original. Morrison relies solely on the latter. Gypsy Davy has a rhythm and instrumental beat to it that may as well be lifted from a Mumford and Sons B-Side. Greenback Dollar and the supporting tenor is one of many laughable offences made here.
What could have been travelling songs for the weary soul aboard a snow-clad train, heaving their barely breathing corpse from Manchester to Hull, is instead a grating period of expressionless classics. Moving on Skiffle has its moments. Freight Train moves with all the grace of one but has nice pockets. Take This Hammer has delicate piano work to it that makes it at least worth trying to engage with. Travelin’ Blues is as empty as it gets, hokum blues that grate rather than create. All those empty singles, the tired This Loving Light of Mine and the brutally dull Worried Man Blues confirm what the singles already had. Morrison provides empty cover after empty cover, a spit in the face to all those great compendiums before him. Pelting the great American songbook with rotten thoughts and empty minds. Moving on Skiffle beats the dead horses of blues music, failing to lift the fragile earnestness and emotional core of that genre.