Friday, April 15, 2011

Many’s The Time I’ve Been Mistaken

I picked up the new paul simon disc tuesday (damn those new release days...i just can’t quit them) i might have been a little hasty in labeling “So Beautiful or So What” one of (if not the) favorites simon discs. But i was really struck by how good is sounded after years of pretty much writing Simon off (i blame edi brickell, because there’s always someone to blame...and at least carrie fisher provided the muse for some of my favorite simon songs)

So of course, a career retrospective listening party was in order to check my simon headspace. pretty much listened to everything in chronological order (exceptions were capeman and the remastered graceland which were stuck in the “S” stacks and it took me several evening to work through the spindles before i found them.) Listened to the remastered versions from 2004 with, of course, bonus tracks, but i didn’t consider the bonus tracks during my evaluations, that was just a fun bonus for me. (although “stranded in a limousine” would have improved “One Trick Pony” but as much as i enjoy “Thelma” i’m glad that didn’t make it onto “Rhythm”. I listened to “Paul Simon” twice, but that didn’t change my perception of the disc, just caught me in a mood and it had been a while since i really paid attention to it
Last qualification: if “Slip Slidin’ Away isn’t my favorite Paul Simon song, then it’s my second favorite (with the live “American Tune” being number one. and if it would have been on Still Crazy (bonus track demo version doesn’t count) that one would have been higher.

oh yeah, i listened to the russian futurists’ “Paul Simon” to set the stage.

So hear you go, this is how they stack up for me from last to first (and i’m still debating the placement of So Beautiful)

10. Surprise
The only thing that is really clear is that SURPRISE is not much of one. The brian eno backing soundscapes are busy and distracting without being remotely interesting. This wouldn’t be a big deal if simon had written a good batch of songs, but his talents fail him here. the melodies are forgettable (wait, that would imply that you had remembered them in the first place), so instead, lets say the melodies are non-existent, and the lyrics, some of the most overtly political in simon’s career, and the most overtly political of his career. where’s the neatly worded allusion, the carefully crafted metaphor? nothing here. move along.

9. Songs from the Capeman
There are some nice melodies here, and a couple of songs (“Killer Wants to Go College”, “Trailways Bus”) hint at a narrative that could have been a lot more interesting (and coherent) if Simon would have ditched the musical and just told the story through a song cycle. And i don’t mind the occasionally awkward musical excursions (i know Simon gets a lot of flak for cultural appropriation, but it always seems like more homage and popularization than plagiarism and his enthusiasm exceeds his opportunism) But mostly, I end up skipping a lot of songs because it seems like they forget to be songs are instead exposition and asides needed to propel the musical. i’d love it if he revisited this recording sometime and gave us a director’s cut as it were.

8. Still Crazy After All These Years
Hate the title song, hate “have a good time”, hate the pseudo jazz production that smears up everything with a bland crisco sound, and as much as i love “my little town” it doesn’t belong here (if only the album had its questing, lost, slightly acrid tone). and everything feels kinds condescending and smarmy to me (“i’m paul simon and you’re not). even the big hit “50 ways to leave your lover” can only come across as bitter (even thought the melody and drums are insanely ear worm-ish) i know it was big back in the day, and “i do it for your love” is a kinda charming song, but i just can’t like this album.

7. One Trick Pony
“That’s Why God Made the Movie” and “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” are soooooo great. And “Late in the Evening” was pretty inescapable (i pretty much heard that song every day on the bus ride to school for all of it’s chart run) even if i have a like/hate relationship with it (like the hate the lyrics) I’m even kinda fond of “One trick Pony” and “Nobody”(although i do agree they are sorta dull songs), but the rest of it is utterly without merit. bland melodies, trite lyrics and that pseudo jazz/electric vibraphone keyboard-ey thing production. It was really hard not to skip the second half of this. (even the bonus track from the movie, “Soft Parachutes” which, in the context of the movie, is supposed to be a one hit wonder, is terrible.)

6. You’re the One
When i started this listen, i was pretty sure that You’re the One was going to be in last place. I listened to it a couple times when it came out, but it didn’t make much of an impression, and it just sorta got lost and unheard. i even had an actual copy of the remastered version of it that i never bothered to listen to (maybe it was a gift) much less bother to sell. and then i gave it a listen and now i’m feeling like my disregard was unwarranted. the production is (welcomingly) toned down for the levels of Graceland and Rhythm, mostly staying in the background instead of overwhelming the songs, which suits these simpler songs. there are some nice lyrics here, personal almost on a Hearts and Bones level about coming to terms with yourself and your history. And the melodies are remarkably catchy throughout the disc. there are even hints of humor (“Old” and “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves”) in place of the usual world weariness Simon espouses. Even songs that could come off as bitter (“Look at That” and “Darling Lorraine”) seem more accepting of situations and circumstance. Maybe that marriage thing is working out. And i really love “Senorita with a Necklace of Tears”

5. Paul Simon
funny how i ignore “Mother and Child Reunion” as one of his great songs and then i hear it and i’m just amazed. Maybe it’s because it really doesn’t sound like paul simon. it’s more like a cover of some lost mournful religious classic. it sounds like something from a different time, a different world, a different musical lineage than the one i associate with mr. simon. i always mistakenly drop it off the canon. The whole album still strikes me this way. Like he was purposefully writing away from the S&G style, less grand statements, more intimate themes and trying to avoid standard musical tropes at all stops. Course, i wouldn’t say his world beat explorations start here (seems like he was doing that on Bridge already) but he does sound freer and looser here, more willing to push himself and unwilling to let anything define him. quite striking to have so much success in one phase and be so able (needful) to change it all up and come out even better.

4. Hearts and Bones
another bit of a surprise. i always thought this was my favorite Simon album. and it is really really great. wonderful imagery in the lyrics, definitely his most personal lyrics with some of my favorite melodies of all. ok, i can quibble with the “Sangre de Christos, the Blood of Christ mountains of new mexico” bit (jeez, paul, you didn’t have to spell it out, we understood without the translation). “song about the moon”, “train in the distance” “late great johnny ace”, Rene and georgette....” and of course, the title track (except for the minor lyrics misstep mentioned above) are all some of my favorite songs.
i think what strikes me upon a careful examination though is how jarring the transitions from the gentle guitar based ballads to the more upbeat/uptempo/world beat ish songs are. I won’t deny the catchiness (and my fondness) for “Allergies” and “think too much (a and to a lesser degree b) and “when numbers get serious” and they definitely fit lyrically/thematically, but the flow isn’t there. it’s almost like two separate albums in one. not sure if that’s on purpose (it is a break up and post mortem album after all) but if so, i’m not sure what the two sides are (her and his or him with her/him without her?) dunno, but that schizophrenia is holding it back for me. (and the less said about “cars are cars” the better....he should have borrowed “in cars” from art’s scissors cuts album)

3. Graceland
probably don’t need to say much about this. it was huge (funny that anyone thought it was a risk for him) it still sounds great and i don’t care about the all cultural exploitation commentary regarding it (although the professional exploitation aspect is kinda interesting). and, “boy in the bubble” has my favorite paul simon lyrics (“Staccato signals of constant information, A loose affiliation of millionaires, And billionaires and baby”) and the cadence of his singing/speaking gets me every time. I even like “You Can Call Me Al”) and the more i think about it, the more i think “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is about Carrie.

2. Rhythm of the Saints
Why deny the obvious, child. why deny the obvious? Everything thinks this is Graceland part light. i think it’s better. the music is more seamless (Graceland was kind of a disconnected gumbo of styles based mostly on a philosophy of “This is the World (calling)”. The lyrics are more universal (Graceland, although not necessarily about paul, definitely centered around a man’s mid life crisis) with themes of faith and hope and searching that were poetic and evoked that long lost missing eden for which everyone seems. the music carries the listener further into Simon’s themes, with complex drum rhythms that can’t help but make one think of a dense primitive rainforest (eden?). Cool jungles, rivers, truth, the innocence of babies, this is all about getting back to the garden, purifying, and rebirth. love it.

1. There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
Ok. i’d have never thought this would be my favorite. RotS or Hearts and Bones for sure. i’d heard it many times and hearted it since high school, but it never stood out as the one. Of course, this one has a lot of great songs (“American Tune”, “Kodachrome”, “Take Me to Mardi Gras”, “Loves Me Like a Rock” with some of Paul’s most consistent songwriting (lyrically and musically) and it’s firmly within the top five, but what changed?
Certainly, So Beautiful or So What had an impact on my listening. As he approaching 70, he’s more at ease with his life, with himself, with his legacy and there’s a calmness in his lyrics and themes, that i hadn’t noticed before (other than in “You’re the One” in 2000, although that’s a long time to go between contentment). Until i went back and realized that he had this calm way back in 1973. While i was listening, i was struck by a couple things.

First off, the lyrics are personal (not as personal as hearts and bones of course, but plenty personal), he’s not writing about some theoretical husband and father here, he’s writing about himself and his family and the world directly around him. it also just happens that he’s so good that he can write about those things and they seem universal to the listener. it’s also interesting to hear them as diary entries or historical entries in the life of paul simon from 35 years ago. i’m charmed by the part where he’s singing about if the famous singer can’t sing his son to sleep; what would the people think, self deprecating (although i typed that as elf deprecating the first time and almost left the typo cos it applies) and also a little break down of the fourth wall between image and reality.

the other thing that strikes me about these songs is how contented he seems. Angst need not apply here; life is good and he appears to be delirious happy. the songs are genuine, peaceful and sincere, things i don’t typically equate with Simon (he of the more restless, ironic, neurotic and dubious about everything type). His contentment is contagious, and i can’t help buy smile when i listen to these songs, “Something so Right” indeed.


  1. Brilliant and hilarious and personal and insightful and it should be published so a lot more people can read it. Perhaps starting with Rhymin' himself. Also, I totally spaced "Cars are Cars." Eck.

  2. Wow this must have taken you awhile! I've clearly got some listening to do now that I'm seeing him in concert :)

  3. Also: Even more convinced the "Even Now" 33 1/3 project should be a go!