Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Paul Simon is certainly not a prolific artist. In a nearly 40-year solo career, he has released only 11 studio albums. In my previous posts, I’ve revisited 8 of these (along with a couple of live albums and a collection of demos he recorded during his years with Simon & Garfunkel), and the quality ranged from very good to great. At the dawn of the new millennium, as Simon approached his 60th birthday, no one would’ve questioned if he eased into early retirement and basked in the glow of an incredibly successful 35+ year career. However, Simon had no such plans, and although his rate of output didn’t increase, the quality of the music remained consistently strong. He’s only released 3 albums so far since 2000, and all of them are worthy additions to his catalog.
A mostly stripped-down affair compared to its immediate predecessors, You’re The One (2000) is a thoroughly enjoyable album that’s top-loaded with four of its best songs. On first listen it was mellow & mostly unmemorable, but is incredibly rewarding upon repeated listens. First track “That’s Where I Belong” is a mostly acoustic, midtempo song that doesn’t seem like a keeper at first, but the melodies eventually won me over. Although it starts with a droning intro that leads into a slow percussive groove, this is classic Paul Simon songwriting. There’s a repeated guitar figure that reminds me of the Bryan Adams song “Heaven.” I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but I heard it every time I listened to this song. “Darling Lorraine” is the longest song here, at over 6 minutes. It tells the story about two people stuck in a marriage where love comes & goes over the years. The narrator always seems to be on a quest for freedom, until it finally arrives. There are several different grooves throughout this song, including the light African feel in the “What – you don’t love me anymore?” sections.
“Old” is a fun, tongue-in-cheek song about aging, set to a rhythm based on Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” (which is referenced in the lyrics). There’s a nice fiddle part at the end of the choruses, although I didn’t see fiddle listed in the credits. “You’re The One” has got to be one of Simon’s most infectious songs, with a great funky groove and an insistent danceable rhythm in the chorus. This one really crept up on me.
“Pigs, Sheep And Wolves” is a political satire where Simon half sings & half talks the lyrics, and “Hurricane Eye” is an upbeat tune with a country/bluegrass flavor, masking the social commentary in the lyrics. Album closer “Quiet” lives up to its name, a spiritual song with a droning background & pensive lyrics (I like the concept of “handcuffs on the soul”). The remainder of the album is very nice & pleasant, but although there are some very strong hooks, it didn’t completely draw me in. Those first four songs, however, make this an album I will spend more time with in the future.
For his next album, Surprise (2006), Simon teamed up with Brian Eno for a collaboration that, on paper, shouldn’t have worked, but resulted in some startlingly beautiful music. Eno started his career handling synthesizers & electronic sounds on Roxy Music’s first two albums. He also collaborated with Talking Heads’ David Byrne and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, has recorded some groundbreaking electronic & ambient music, and produced a number of mega-successful U2 albums, among many other accomplishments. For this Paul Simon album, I’ve read that the two of them mostly worked separately, with Simon providing the basic tracks and Eno adding his “sonic landscape” (as he’s credited on the album). Since this was Simon’s first album to be released in the post 9/11 world, I knew he would address that subject, which he does on album opener “How Can You Live In The Northeast?” It’s not overtly political, instead focusing on the changes to everyone’s lifestyle in the new reality. The music has electronic overtones but is not a drastic departure from his previous work. I like the line “If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?”
The album’s title, repeated three times, comes from the song “Everything About It Is A Love Song.” Eno’s programming really drives this one, with lyrics about aging, looking back, and staying positive about the world…now and in the future. One of the highlights here is “Outrageous,” with Simon almost rapping during the verses (that concept is “outrageous”), and a truly great pop hook for the chorus, “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” His answer near the end of the song is “God will,” Simon’s spirituality really shining through here. “Beautiful” lives up to its name, with a playful sound that wouldn’t have been out of place on Graceland. It’s quiet yet upbeat and joyful, with very subtle electronics pushing it along.
“Another Galaxy” is a muted but captivating song about a bride who leaves town on her wedding day, seeing herself in another life…or “another galaxy.” Possibly the best song here (and certainly the catchiest) is “Father And Daughter,” ironically the only track not featuring Eno. Adrian Simon, the oldest child of Paul Simon & Edie Brickell, provides additional vocals. The chorus of “I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow” is as instantly memorable as anything Simon has written, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Paul McCartney song.
I noticed throughout the printed lyrics that certain water-themed words were highlighted, like river, floodwater, clouds, frost, pond, rain, teardrop, crying, pool, snow, mist, storm, ocean, sea and stream. I’m not sure why these are featured, but there must be a theme considering the various bodies of water showcased on the album cover and images throughout the CD booklet, as well as the song title “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean.” If anyone can shed some light on this I would greatly appreciate it. I have a friend who considers Surprise among the best albums of Simon’s career, and although I don’t completely agree with that assessment, it does continue his streak of wonderful releases, a pleasant surprise for an artist who was 65 when it was released.
His most recent album is So Beautiful Or So What (2011). “Brevity” was the word that came to mind the first time I put it in my CD player. At about 38 minutes, this is like most of the albums I grew up with in the 70s. Instead of a bloated 70-minute CD with 15 or more songs, he came up with 9 relatively short tracks (and one very brief instrumental), and the short duration invites multiple listens. Of the three albums he’s released in the new millennium, this is by far my favorite. There’s nothing new in the production or arrangements, and his lyrics continue with themes of aging, time passing by and spiritual questioning, yet there’s a cohesiveness suggesting all of these songs belong together. The first track, and the single released months before the album, is “Getting Ready For Christmas Day.” This is not a traditional holiday tune, instead it’s got a foot-stomping beat with lyrics addressing mortality and war, and features excerpts of a 1941 sermon of the same name by Reverend J.M. Gates & Congregation. This is followed by “The Afterlife,” a real gem with a percussive intro and surprisingly fun lyrics about seeking answers after you die and still needing to wait (“You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line”). Is he telling us that the real answer lies in the simple joys of a song (ie. “Be Bop A Lula”)?
[Paul Simon – “The Afterlife”]
“Rewrite” features another stomping beat, as well as great interplay between the guitar, kora and glass harp. The instrumental flourishes between the chorus and verse are dazzling, and the tune is really catchy. Possibly my favorite song on this album is “Love & Blessings.” It’s the bluesiest thing he’s done in a while, and includes a great vocal section (“Bop-bop-a-whoa”) where the cool effect on the backing vocals (by Simon’s teenage daughter Lulu?) make them sound like a passing steam train. Blues harmonica player Sonny Terry is featured on “Love Is The Eternal Sacred Light,” a jubilant song with a gospel feel. I was surprised by what seemed like anti-religion lyrics in “Questions For The Angels.” First he sings, “Who believes in angels? Fools do,” but later answers with “I do.” His spiritual quest continues. “Dazzling Blue” has a mixture of African guitar and Indian percussion and a very strong melody. It’s another recent song that would fit nicely on Graceland. “So Beautiful Or So What” closes the album on a positive note with an infectious guitar melody and lyrics about enjoying what you can out of life. It’s hard to believe a 70-year old could release such a solid, vital album, but nothing about Paul Simon’s songwriting ability is surprising anymore.
In revisiting his catalog these past few weeks, not only did I get reacquainted with a few albums I was already pretty familiar with, but I also made some new favorites along the way. I can understand that some fans would be satisfied with a career-spanning compilation (and everyone should have some of Simon’s music in their collection), but for anyone wanting to delve deeper, there are plenty of worthwhile songs that would only be available on the individual albums. There’s no doubt in my mind that Simon is one of the all-time greatest pop/rock songwriters, an accolade that certainly applied to his work in Simon & Garfunkel, and has been confirmed throughout his solo career.