If the history books were to be closed on singer/songwriter Paul Simon's career today, he'd have already left a legacy more than sufficient to ensure a substantial chapter. While other emergent songwriters of his dayLeonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Randy Newman amongst themhave clearly evolved over the years, there's been an underlying approach that's remained consistent across, in many cases, half a century. That's not to dismiss or denigrate these icons of song, only to say that Simon has emerged as a songwriter who has not just grown as a wordsmith and composer of catchy, memorable music (as they all have); he's the only one to have looked at the world around him, studying and subsuming advancing technology, diverse genres and, perhaps most importantly, the music of other cultures. It's a mindset Simon shares with the slightly younger British songwriter Peter Gabrieldespite their being completely different in their approachesnot just incorporating these diverse and sometimes disparate concepts into his music but, in the case of pan-cultural concerns, actually locating and working with many of the musicians he studied.
Nowhere is this clearer than on The Complete Albums Collection
, which collects almost every album Simon has released, starting with 1965's The Paul Simon Songbook
(Columbia, 1965) through to his most recent studio record, So Beautiful Or So What
(Hear Music, 2011). Only the two-CD/1-DVD Live in New York City
(Hear Music, 2012), culled from the limited tour Simon launched in support of So Beautiful
, is omitted. Over the course of 46 years, The Complete Albums Collection
follows Simon as he moves from acoustic guitar-slinging folk singer to jazz-informed popster, African and Brazilian-tinged world traveler, electro-centric explorer and, finally, consolidator of everything that came before.
The collection, housed in a pristine white box with magnets to keep the lid closed, places the 15 CDs, comprising 14 separate releases, in miniature (where relevant) replicas of the original vinyl covers, including the gatefold sleeves for albums like 1975's There Goes Rhymin' Simon
(Warner Bros.), complete with lyricssmall but legible. Traversing Simon's career from the age of 23 through to the cusp of his 70th birthday, the box uses the 2004 expanded remasters of everything up to You're The One
(Warner Bros., 2000), so that eleven of the albums include bonus tracks ranging from works-in-progress and demos to live performances, alternate versions of tunes with different lyrics and songs that never ultimately appeared on any of his recordings other than greatest hits packages. The box paints a picture of an artist for whom evolution is a constant, and whose ability to tell stories has grown from poetic but, perhaps, youthfully earnest and direct, to more sophisticated, allegorical and impressionistic. Simon may be marginally more prolific than Peter Gabriel, but his output has slowed down, with new studio recordings often five or six years apart; but, like Gabriel, what Simon now lacks in quantitycompared to his early years, where he seemed to be overflowing with ideashe more than makes up for in quality.
The first album in the box, The Paul Simon Songbook
(Columbia, 1965), is something of an oddity. Recorded that year after the first Simon & Garfunkel record, the all-acoustic Wednesday Morning, 3 AM
(Columbia, 1964), failed to ignite as expected, Simon spent some time in England, where he found himself in demand as a coffeehouse singer. Songbook
emerged from that experience, recorded at Columbia's London studio to satisfy then-increasing demands for an album by a growing number of British fans.
Recorded sparinglyjust Simon's voice and acoustic guitarit's an oddity as it includes a couple of already released songs, specifically "He Was My Brother" and "The Sound of Silence," both appearing on Wednesday Morning
, but the latter only becoming a hit when Simon & Garfunkel went electric on their next record, 1966's Sounds of Silence
(Columbia). That breakthrough album also featured duo versions of other songs that are on Songbook
: "The Leaves That Are Green," "I Am A Rock," "April Come She Will," "Kathy's Song" and "A Most Peculiar Man." "Patterns," "Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall" and the obliquely titled "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission)" ultimately appeared on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme
(Columbia, 1966), as well as "The Side of a Hill," which did not appear as a standalone tune, but as a countermelody on "Scarborough Fair/Canticle."
Which leaves the one song, "A Church is Burning," appearing in two versions: the one that appeared on the album; the other a bonus alternate take. While not appearing on any Simon & Garfunkel studio recordings, it did show up on Live from New York City, 1967
(Columbia, 2002), prior to their winning a Lifetime Achievement Award
at the 2003 Grammy Awards
. Like some of the other material to be found on The Paul Simon Album
, it reflects a young, emerging songwriter who is still a tad obvious and, at times, too coy for his own good. Still, it's an intriguing look at Simon's earliest days, and the chance to hear some Simon & Garfunkel tunes on their own and as wholly acoustic numbers. Some, like "I Am A Rock," may have become a hit for the duo, but Simon's performances here (including a bonus alternate take) suggests, as history has ultimately proven, that while Simon & Garfunkel had value in its time, Simon was already a confident solo performer who might well have succeeded on his own even then. Still, the ultimate success of the duo gave him both the confidence and freedom to ultimately step out on his own with a different conception, as he did in 1972 on Paul Simon
, released two years after Simon & Garfunkel's megahit swan song, Bridge Over Troubled Water
(Columbia, 1970), an album which also spoke to Simon's burgeoning interest in gospel music.
From the opening notes and reggae-fied groove of the opening "Mother and Child Reunion," it's clear that Simon was immediately distancing himself from Simon & Garfunkel while, at the same time, further exploring that interest in gospel music.
Co-produced by Simon and Bridge Over Troubled Water
co-producer Roy Halee, It was also the beginning of Simon's gradual move towards using musicians from farther afield, and the creation of a growing cadre of players from whom Simon would cull from then on. It included a number of jazz musicians who would have an increasing impact on Simon's work, along with blues and Latin music, in particular from Paul Simon
through Hearts and Bones
(Warner Bros., 1983), his last record before leaping to the next level with 1986's breakthrough, Graceland
(Warner Bros.). Not that Simon's career wasn't already successful, or that his pre-Graceland
releases didn't have their share of hits. Simon was clearly already a major pop star, but everything changed with Graceland
. Paul Simon
also demonstrated an early interest in what was becoming known as "world music," featuring Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira
, Return to Forever
) and Andean music group Los Incaswho, after accompanying Simon on Bridge Over Troubled Water
's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" (a rare non-Simon composition), were invited to collaborate on Paul Simon
's "Duncan." Simon also recruited clear jazzers like bassist Ron Carter
, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri
and guitarist Jerry Hahn
on tracks including "Run That Body Down," going completely manouche
on the brief "Hobo's Blues," a light and fun duo with violinist Stephane Grappelli
that remains Simon's sole all-instrumental song to this day.
But it was with There Goes Rhymin' Simon
(1973) that Simon made his break from his Simon & Garfunkel days complete. Gone was co-producer Halee, along with some of the session players often recruited for Simon & Garfunkel records, like session drummer Hal Blaine
and bassist Joe Osborn. With Simon completely in the driver's seat as producer, he fashioned a record that further distanced and defined his style as both a wordsmith and a composer.
While there are guest appearances by everyone from drummer Grady Tate
and bassist Bob Cranshaw
to Moreira, the core group that bolsters this collection of ten songswith three major hits in "Kodachrome," the flat-out gospel of "Loves Me Like a Rock" (accompanied by well-known Dixie Hummingbirds) and gentler "American Tune," along with "Take Me To The Mardi Gras," a minor hit in the UKis the infamous Muscle Shoals rhythm section of keyboardist Barry Beckett, bassist David White and Big Neighborhood
and drummer Roger Hawkins, where some of the album was recorded.
But Simon was branching out even further. "One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor" may juxtapose a more pop-like set of piano arpeggios with its more down-and-dirty core, but it's ultimately a gospel-inflected blues at its heart, with a chorus that also reflects Simon's increasingly sophisticated way with words. Simon was ultimately considered a more cerebral writer, and there's no doubt that his lyrics here begin to demonstrate greater sophistication and a less direct approach to his subject matter, which ranges from the semi-autobiographical to the socio-political. "American Tune," in particular, tells a well-known story but from a perspective that could be considered as either personal or historical reflection.
On its release, Paul Simon In Concert: Live Rhymin'
(1974) seemed more like a holding pattern than a step forward: the obligatory live album. Still, while it begins with Simon solo, it soon turns into a celebration of music from his solo career as well as embracing the Simon & Garfunkel repertoire, reinterpreted with guests Urubamba, the Peruvian group he'd met in Paris that helps him out on "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" and "Duncan." Even more importantly, the Jessy Dixon Singers makes a first appearance, not only adding vocals to the party, but a rhythm section as well, bringing "Mother And Child Reunion," "The Sound of Silence," "Jesus Is The Answer" (another rare non-Simon track), "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a particularly buoyant "Loves Me Like A Rock" to joyous, spiritual life.
The original album closed with "America," from Simon & Garfunkel's most experimental record, Bookends
(Columbia, 1968). It may have represented a holding pattern for Simon, as he worked on his next studio record, and is surprising in its largely "solo plus guests" approach since, by this time, it would have seemed appropriate to tour with a group. It also represents a watershed as Simon embraces his Simon & Garfunkel writing, unlike many artists who, after leaving a group, also leave their past repertoire behind. By including a total of half a dozen Simon & Garfunkel songs in a 12-song set list expanded to fourteen with two bonus tracks"Kodachrome" and "Something So Right," both performed soloSimon made clear that his career was all-inclusive.
It was a decision made even clearer with the release of Still Crazy After All These Years
(Columbia; later Warner Bros.) the following year, where Simon invited Art Garfunkelwho, exploring a career in acting, had appeared in two Mike Nichols films, Catch 22
(1970) and the more controversial Carnal Knowledge
(1971), for which he won a Golden Globe
nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1972to join him on what would become a Top 10 hit, "My Little Town." Garfunkel's acting career was, at this point, in a stall; Simon's decision to invite him to sing a songone which never would have fit on a Simon & Garfunkel record, but acted as a reminder of just how simpatico the two singer's voices werecould be perceived, then, as an act of kindness. Garfunkel's post-Simon & Garfunkel musical career was, barring a couple of hits, also far less successful than his songwriting partner's. The biggest problem? Garfunkel was never a songwriter, his solo recordings therefore relying on sourcing suitable material from other sources.
It is also more than a little curious that "My Little Town" appeared on Garfunkel's Breakaway
(Columbia)released the same month, October, 1975. Clearly some kind of negotiation to allow the two artists to work together and both reap the benefits, while Breakaway
would be Garfunkel's most successful solo record (peaking at #9, no doubt bolstered by "My Little Town"), it was still trumped by Simon, whose Still Crazy After All These Years
became Simon's first #1 hit in the USA.
And it's no surprise, as Simon continued to mine the gospel inflections of his earlier recordings, especially on songs like ""Gone at Last," a flat-out piece of church that, in addition to including the Jessy Dixon singers, is notable for Phoebe Snow's participation, delivering one of her best vocal performances ever. It was one of four Top 40 hits from the album, in addition to "My Little Town," the balladic title track, and the song with what may possess the most instantly recognizable drum intro ever: the #1 hit, "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover."
That drum intro came from Steve Gadd
who, making his first appearance with Simon here, would continue working with him almost to the present day, last appearing on the singer/songwriter's unjustly overlooked collaboration with British ambient forefather, Brian Eno
on 2006's Surprise
(Warner Bros.). Still Crazy
was the beginning of a shift towards a much jazzier disposition for Simon, largely through enlisting musicians like bassist Tony Levin
later to become a progressive rock figurehead with both Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, but at this point a busy session player who'd also taken part in a number of jazz recordings, including the Arista All Stars' two Blue Montreux
(Arista, 1978) releases. Gadd was a busy session player himself, already clocking up considerable acclaim for his groove-heavy work with artists like Chick Corea
, George Benson
, Hubert Laws
and Jim Hall
Simon, in fact, was increasingly drawing upon a group of New York-based jazz musicians who were finding themselves much in-demand by pop artists. Some other notable jazzer appearances on Still Crazy
include Brecker Brothers Michael and Randy, David Sanborn
, Phil Woods
, Bob James
, Joe Beck
, Hugh McCracken, John Tropea
, David Spinozza
and, perhaps most significantly, Richard Tee
a supremely soulful pianist who, along with Gadd, guitarists Cornell Dupree
and Eric Gale
, drummer Christopher Parker
and bassist Gordon Edwards
(who'd already made his first appearance with Simon on There Goes Rhymin' Simon
), were getting ready to release their first album as Stuff, a band that broke no new ground but was a funky, groove-heavy and just plain fun diversion for these busy session players.
That Simon would continue to work with Gadd, Tee and Levin, in particular, spoke to their ability to place themselves credibly into any context, and on Still Crazy
Simon gave them allalong with a total cast of literally dozens of musicians and singersplenty to work with, on what was his most fully realized album to date. It became clear that Simon's harmonic knowledge was growing in leaps and bounds, with tunes like "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" being far more change-heavy than most singer/songwriters are capable. And beyond the hits, there were other superb songs, including the gently soulful and autobiographical "I Do It For Your Love," and "Night Game"a soft ballad that, in addition to being Simon's first credited appearance on electric guitar, was a standout trio tune with Levin and Belgian harmonica legend Toots Thielemans
, Together, they represented Simon's increasing sophistication, both musically and lyrically. Even the equally gentle "Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy" contains a beautifully articulate plea, spoken in a voice that could only be Simon's:
"Here I am, Lord
I'm knocking at your place of business
I know I ain't got no business here
But you said if I ever got so low
I was busted
You could be trusted."
Amongst the bonus tracks is a demo of "Slip Slidin' Away" (with uncredited bassist and backup female singer), a song that would ultimately become a major hit for Simon but never appeared, in finished form, on any of his records other than "greatest hits" collections, starting with Greatest Hits, Etc.
Five years passed before Simon would release his next record, 1980's One-Trick Pony
, his first official Warner Bros. release and, in addition to being an album of new songs, was the soundtrack to his film of the same name. The actual versions used in the film were, however, different.
Simon wrote and starred in the film as an aging folk-rock singer/songwriter who, after a massive hit in the late 1960s (the Vietnam war protest song, "Soft Parachutes," later included as a bonus track on the 2004 reissue of the CD), was struggling for his artistic life in the late '70s, forced to play in dingy bars where he opened for punk rock bands, and driving to gigs with his group only to find that the venue was closed. Rumored to be loosely autobiographical, the film was a commercial flop (Simon, while successful at inducing sympathy throughout, proved himself the one-trick pony of the title in more ways than one). After the massive success of Still Crazy
, the album was also less successful both critically and commercially, even though it reached #12 on the US charts and had a Top 10 hit with the horn-heavy, salsa-driven opener, "Late In The Evening."
It's a shame, because time has been much kinder to this record which, while including a number of guest appearances, is largely based around the core of Stuff, but with Tony Levin on bass instead of Gordon Edwards. Richard Tee, in addition to defining the texture of the album with his swirling Fender Rhodes, sings backup (along with Levin) on the funkified title track, and comes up front to alternate verses and then sing in tandem with Simon on the equally groove-centric "Ace in the Hole," his growly, blues-drenched voice contrasting with Simon's cleaner but still soulful delivery. With Steve Gadd in the pocket with Levin, guitarist Eric Gale
delivers some suitably simple but expressive lines, as he does on the gentler pulse of "God Bless the Absentee."
But as strong as the up-tempo tracks are, it's the ballads that may be One-Trick Pony
's best. Slick, yes, and occasionally supported by string arrangements, tracks like "How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns" is a new watershed for Simon as a lyric writer:
In the blue light
Of the Belvedere Motel
Wondering as the television burns
How the heart approaches what it yearns
In a fever
I distinctly hear your voice
Emerging from a dream, the dream returns
How the heart approaches what it yearns
After the rain on the interstate
Headlights slide past the moon
A bone-weary traveler waits
By the side of the road
Where's he going?
I dream we are lying on the top of a hill
And headlights slide past the moon
I roll in your arms
And your voice is the heat of the night
I'm on fire
In a phone booth
In some local bar and grill
Rehearsing what I'll say, my coin returns
How the heart approaches what it yearns
How the heart approaches what it yearns
The bonus tracks, in addition to Simon's "'60s hit" Soft Parachutes," also includes "All Because of You," a version of the album's "Oh, Marion" with different (and less successful) lyrics; the unreleased soundtrack recording "Spiral Highway," which applies a different set of words to "How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns"; and, most significantly, the gospel-inflected "Stranded in a Limousine," another song first appearing on Greatest Hits, Etc.
but failing to chart like "Slip Slidin' Away," included here largely because it features many of the same players that appear on the rest of the record.
After the relative flop of One-Trick Pony
, Hearts and Bones
(Warner Bros., 1983) slumped Simon's career even further, only managing to chart at #35 in the US. Far from a bad record, it is, however, a relatively
weak onein part, for some of his choices for support, with Al Di Meola
delivering a characteristically soulless solo on the opening "Allergies," contrasting the emotive playing of past players like Gale.
Still, there are songs that merit attention. The folk-driven title trackbolstered by Gadd (who splits much of the album with Steve Ferrone
and, on one track, Jeff Porcaro
), Tee (replaced, on some tracks, by the capable but less distinctive Greg Phillinganes), Airto Moreira, contrabassist Anthony Jackson
(augmented or splitting space on a couple tracks with Marcus Miller
)would remain in Simon's live set lists right through to Live in New York City
, while "The Late Great Johnny Ace" may be the best, most allegorical homage to John Lennon
ever written. "Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War" is another winner, though it's a particularly obscure song for fans, few of whom would know of the surrealist/Dadaist artist of the title. Still, it celebrates another thread that has run through much of Simon's career: the doo-wop groups he grew up listening to as a youngster growing up in 1950s Queens, New York.
While Simon's name was big enough to sustain a couple of lesser successes, nobody can sustain a career indefinitely on the "strength" of relatively weak releases. Three years later, however, after discovering the music of South Africaand, to much controversy that has only recently been resolved, going against a world that was largely boycotting the country's apartheid regime by traveling to the politically divided country to both record and play with South African musicians, and then take them on a massive world tourSimon recorded and released Graceland
(Warner Bros., 1986). If Peter Gabriel's So
(Geffen), released the same year, was the record that made him a superstar, Graceland
was the album that elevated Simon from his already star status into the upper echelons of superstardom. Graceland
's success was assured as a commercially accessible album with two major hits: the Grammy
-winning title track (the album also won a Grammy
for Album of the Year); and the even catchier, danceable "You Can Call Me Al," which exploited, in the best way possible, the world's increasing fascination with music coming from Africa in general. But what makes Graceland
special is its multiplicity of elements, incorporated into a seamless whole. The opening "The Boy In The Bubble" not only introduced the world to accordionist Forere Motloheloa, it shone a spotlight on Bakithi Kumalo, a virtuoso electric bassist who would continue to work with Simon until the present day. Its lyrics were as visceral, potent and poetic as anything Simon had ever written to date:
It's a turn-around jump shot
It's everybody jump start
It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
But as much as Graceland
reflected Simon's interest in the music of South Africa, he managed to bring it into his world on the title track, which charts a trip to Memphis to visit Graceland, a homage to the late Elvis Presley
. "I Know What I Know," a collaboration with General M.D. Shirinda and The Gaza Sisters, may concern a very American topic but with a storytelling approach deeply rooted in the South African tradition:
She looked me over
And I guess she thought
I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way
For an off-night
She said don't I know you
From the cinematographer's party
I said who am I
To blow against the wind
I know what I know
I'll sing what I said
We come and we go
That's a thing that I keep
In the back of my head
She said there's something about you
That really reminds me of money
She is the kind of a girl
Who could say things that
Weren't that funny
I said what does that mean
I really remind you of money
She said who am I
To blow against the wind
, Simon also made Ladysmith Black Mambazo into a world-famous South African a capella
vocal group that continues to tour on its own to this day. But the group's contribution to the buoyant "Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes" and more poignant "Homeless" also helped make Simon a superstar; the beauty of this record is that it was truly a collaborative effort and, while Simon was castigated in some circles for breaking the apartheid boycott, his view that music must
transcend politics is something that has ultimately proven to be true.
Simon took his South African friends on a tour of the world that, if anything, bolstered the case for dissolving apartheid, even though would be another eight years before it actually happened. It would be presumptuous to suggest that artists like Simon and albums like Graceland
caused, in any way, the end of apartheid; but they did
raise its visibility, as Simon not only brought many of the album's musicians on tour, but also exiled South African icons Hugh Masekela
and Miriam Makeba
. But as much as it was a political statement, the Graceland
world tour was also a celebration of the power of music as both a universal language and an agent of change through the raising of awareness.
As strong a record as Graceland
is, Simon actually managed to trump himself with 1990's The Rhythm Of The Saints
(Warner Bros.), an album that married lessons learned on Graceland
with Simon's exploration of the music of Brazil. The Rhythm Of The Saints
is an even braver record than Graceland
. It remains the most complex record of Simon's career, and didn't chart quite as highly, selling fewer copies. Going double platinum in the US (not bad, but far from the quintuple platinum of Graceland
), it still managed to not just score a Grammy
nomination for Album of the Year (it didn't win), but also one for Producer of the Yearwhich, even though he didn't win, was perhaps even more significant for Simon, who had been co-producing all of his albums since Paul Simon
, but had only assumed the role of sole producer with Graceland
Beyond Brazilwhere much of the album's rhythm tracks were recordedThe Rhythm Of The Saints
continues to explore Simon's fascination with Africa, this time, West and Central. It represents Simon's first encounter with Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, who has remained a musical collaborator ever since. It's this pan-cultural approach that makes the album so rich, so dense and, lyrically, Simon's most impressionistic yet. There were no hit singles and, with its preponderance of knotty polyrhythmic ideas and interlocking melodies ("Can't Run But"), it's as far from the simpler song forms of Simon's early recordings as he's ever been. Traditional American forms like AABA are dispensed with; instead, Simon uses instrumental blending and winding melodies that emerge, disappear and then reappear in different contexts as contrasting counterpoints. Different Irregular meters interlock to create pulsating rhythms that are captivating, yet difficult to pin down.
It's Simon's most eclectic, esoteric recording, and the one where he proves himself more than just a songwriter or producer; much like Peter Gabrielwhose name keeps coming up for a reasonSimon is a musical explorer, and it's his ability to integrate disparate elements into something that is unmistakably definitive of his own voice is that has rendered him so important in the history of pop music from the 20th century and beyond.
While not as commercially successful as its predecessor, that didn't stop Simon from launching a large-scale world tour with a massive, 18-piece groupnot including Grjupo Cultural OLODUM and singer Briz, who reprise their roles on "The Obvious Child," the opening song of both The Rhythm Of The Saints
and this live concert recording, Paul Simon's Concert In The Park
(Warner Bros., 1991).
Along with some of his African and Brazilian friendsamongst them guitarists Nguini and Ray Phiri (the latter from Graceland
), and percussionists Mingo Araújo and Cyro BaptistaSimon also enlists Americans Steve Gadd, Michael Brecker
(who had solo spot each night, sadly not included on Paul Simon's Concert In The Park
), Richard Tee and Chris Botti
. It's a group capable of a career-spanning concert that, while containing plenty of songs from Graceland
and The Rhythm Of The Saints
, also dips back to Paul Simon
, for "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard," and There Goes Rhymin' Simon
, for "Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like A Rock." Simon even draws on Hearts and Bones
for both the title track and a version of "Train In The Distance" that effortlessly trumps the original.
Simon also looks further back to his Simon & Garfunkel days, though he saves those tunes for last: solo acoustic versions of "America" and "The Boxer," followed by an African-ized look at "Cecilia" and a gently electrified "The Sound Of Silence," bringing the two-hour concert to a close. Paul Simon's Concert In The Park
is a terrific look at a career that at this point, was well into its third decade. It would be almost 10 years before Simon would release another solo album.
Well, almost. Having flopped as a film writer/actor, Simon decided to try his hand at a Broadway play and did even worse. Songs From The Capeman
collect songs from a musical (The Capeman
) that was not only a commercial flop, losing $11 million, with an initial run of just 68 performances; it was also the lowest charting album of Simon's career.
But, again, time has a way of fixing thingswell, in this case, to some extent. The play and album, based loosely on the life of convicted murderer Salvadore Agrón, was co-written with Nobel
prize-winning West Indian author and poet Derek Walcott. The lyrics, according to Simon, were split about 50/50 between the two writers, with Simon composing all the music. And that may be one of its biggest problems; while the music feels, at least to some extent, like a Paul Simon record, the sometimes over-direct nature of the lyrics is something he'd long since left behind for more allegorical and suggestive territory.
Still, the album's touchstonesPuerto Rican music, doo-wop and rock and rollare delivered credibly by a truly massive collection of musicians; but unlike One-Trick Pony
, which succeeded as a standalone Paul Simon record, completely separate from the failed film, it's hard to think of Songs From The Capeman
as anything more than a soundtrack record. It's an ambiguity made all the more so through vocal appearances from some of the cast members. It's no surprise that it failed as a standalone recording, although the play has subsequently been performed on occasion, and Simon has performed songs from the album live. Still, if there's an album in Simon's career that's best forgotten, it's Songs From The Capeman
Which made the appearance of You're The One
(Warner Bros., 2000) three years later such a potential treat. While it didn't reach the successes of Graceland
or The Rhythm Of The Saints
, it did manage a Grammy
nomination, and was a strong return to form. Although it's less adventurous than The Rhythm Of The Saints
, it's a very consistent set of superb songwriting, from the gentle opener, "That's Where I Belong," to the brighter, episodic "Sweet Lorraine"as truthful and poignant an account of relationships' joys and banalities as is likely to be found.
It's the album where Simon begins to broach the subject of age, as he entered his sixties, with a combination of wit and wisdom:
Down the decades every year
Summer leaves and my birthday's here
And all my friends stand up and cheer
And say man you're old
We celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas day
And Buddha found nirvana along the lotus way
About 1,500 years ago the messenger Mohammed spoke
And his wisdom like a river flowed
Through hills of gold
Wisdom is old
The Koran is old
The Bible is old
Greatest story ever told
The human race has walked the earth for 2.7 million
And we estimate the universe at 13-14 billion
When all these numbers tumble into your imagination
Consider that the lord was here before creation
God is old
We're not old
God is old
He made the mold.
It would be surprising that You're The One
had no radio hits if it weren't for the fact that, by 2000, so much had changed in the music industry. The album is filled with catchy lyrics and melodies, delivered by a relatively small cast of musiciansbarring Paul Simon's Concert In The Park
, Simon's smallest personnel list since One-Trick Pony
. A consolidation of the many interests that Simon has pursued over his career, it's overall a more accessible record than The Rhythm Of The Saints
but, by not breaking any new groundor having a compelling back story like Graceland
it has been, to some extent, unfairly assessed as a more average recording when, in fact, it may be one of his best. Certainly the three live tracksculled from the subsequent concert DVD as bonus material for the CD 2004 reissuedemonstrate that, in performance, this material was as good as anything on Paul Simon's Concert In The Park
After two years touring You're The One
and another two years reuniting, off and on, with Art Garfunkel live and in the studio for a comeback tour, live album and video, Surprise
was, well, a surprise: a collaboration with Brian Eno. With Simon listed as sole producer, Eno is credited as contributing "electronics" to all of Surprise
's eleven tracks. It's an even smaller record, personnel-wise, than You're The One
, Simon had begun to employ a different approach to songwriting: "I start with the rhythm," he explained in a 2006 USA Today interview
. "It's drums first, then I go to key to sound to guitar to the form of the song to the beginning of the melody. As the melody begins, so do the words...I write backward."
It may be a reverse approach to writing, but it clearly works; Surprise
is, however, another album that's been unfairly overlooked. While it features regular Simon participants like Steve Gadd, Vincent Nguini, Abraham Laboriel and Jamey Hadad, it also includes some newcomers, in particular bassist Pino Palladiino. Bill Frisell
makes a first-time guest appearance on "Everything About It Is A Love Song," his ethereal cloud of chords buried in the mix but instantly recognizable, while Herbie Hancock
shows up, also for his first appearance on a Simon record, on "Wartime Prayers." This is, in fact, one of Simon's best songs (and one of his favorite) in recent years, and a return to the gospel inflections of his earlier work. He even brings the Jessy Dixon singers back for support but, with grittily overdriven guitars and a strong backbeat, it's something utterly contemporary as well, as he sings:
Because you cannot walk with the holy if you're just a halfway decent man
I don't pretend that I'm a mastermind with a genius marketing plan
I'm trying to tap into some wisdom
Even a little drop will do
I want to rid my heart of envy
And cleanse my soul of rage before I'm through
A mother murmurs in twilight sleep
And draws her babies closer
With hush-a-byes for sleepy eyes
And kisses on the shoulder
To drive away despair
She says a wartime prayer
While all of the components that Simon has built upon in his long career are there to be found in Surprise
, what makes it such a strong recordone of the best of his careeris that, even as he approached 65 at the time of its release, Simon was still testing himself, keeping his eyes and years open. His voice sounds as strong as ever and there's simply not a weak song in the bunch.
Which brings Simon to the presentor, with So Beautiful Or So What
released in 2011, close to. After a run of self-producing, Simon brings back Phil Ramone for the first time since One-Trick Pony
, and once again it's a winner. It's another album of both consolidation and forward steps, as Simon's use of samplinga sermon on the opening "Getting Ready For Christmas Day," a cull from "Train Whistle Blues" for the up-tempo "Live Is Eternal Sacred Light," where Simon debuts as a lead guitarist (and a good oneno real surprise if attention is paid to his playing throughout his career), and "Golden Gate Gospel Train" on the gentler "Love And Blessings"demonstrates that Simon's approach to songwriting remains inclusive of developments both cultural and technological.
It's a revolutionary album, but in a quiet way. The instrumentation is unusualthere are only two tracks with bass, one played by the album's primary drummer, Jim Oblon ("Love And Blessings"), the other by David Finck
(the quiet, chamber-like "Love and Hard Times"). Instead, it's a cornucopia of percussion, guitars, bansuri flutes, glockenspiels, koras, konnakol singing and more. Simon's lyrical pen is as sharp as ever, tempering anger with humor, creating characters and events that are compelling without being either obvious or overstated.
Simon waxes comedic about going through the Pearly Gates of Heaven:
Buddha and Moses
And all the noses
From narrow to flat
Had to stand in the line
Just to glimpse the divine
What'cha think about that?
Well, it seems like our fate
To suffer and wait
For the knowledge we seek
It's all His design...
You got to fill out a form first
And then you wait in the line.
But as he hits 70, Simon also doesn't shy away from the harsher realities of life on the title track, a polyrhythmic gumbo of driving drums and interlocking guitar parts:
Ain't it strange the way we're ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and Love
Like a pair of rolling dice
So beautiful, so beautiful
Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot
And the sirens long melody
Singing savior pass me not
Ain't it strange the way we're ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and love
Like a pair of rolling dice
So beautiful, so beautiful
It's a truly dark ending to Simon's highest charting album in 20 years.
It's also the closer to The Complete Albums Collection
, a set of twelve studio recordings and two live albums that may seem diminutive for the 46 years it spans. But, again not unlike the even less prolific Peter Gabriel (only seven studio albums and two live albums in 36 years), Paul Simon's career has been defined by quality
, by exploration, and by a steadfast refusal to compromise. For those who've heard this all before, it may not be news, but for those who've yet to explore the breadth of Paul Simon's career, there's no better place to start than The Complete Albums Collection
. Greatest hits collections only tell part of the story; for a songwriter as consistent as Simon, the best way to experience his work is in its entirety, and this beautifully packaged boxwith a booklet that contains, in addition to a brief essay by Ashley Kahn, full track and personnel listings for every record in the setbrings together a life's work that is, hopefully, far from over.