With song titles like “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” “Precious Time,” and “Golden Autumn Day” on his new album, Back on Top, Van Morrison might be trying to tell us something about his 54-year-old state of mind. (I won’t even get into the liner-note snapshots of long shadows, dying trees, and bridges leading into darkness.) Slightly more hopeful than Bob Dylan’s bleak examination of the golden years, Time Out of Mind, Morrison’s latest release—for the most part—focuses on the more illuminating roadside attractions on the highway to the sweet forever. Former James Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis provides the silver lining with infectious blasts of soprano, baritone, and tenor sax on R&B groovers such as “New Biography” and the title track. When Morrison slows down and stretches out on contemplative tunes like “In the Midnight” and “Reminds Me of You,” it’s longtime vocalist Brian Kennedy who, with his pure, effeminate wail, links hope with the natural act of winding down. But for all Morrison’s aching laments on losing sight of youth, the heavy-set rock legend still hasn’t forgotten how to craft beautifully layered songs—Back on Top would make a sweet instrumental album—that function as soothing background music as well as front-and-center sermons. Even as the years pile up behind him, Van the Man can still whip up a splendid harvest-moon dance.—Sean Daly

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