“But you can’t outrun the history train / I seen a glorious day.”
In the modern world we are, more often than not, instantly gratified and prone to fashion. In these days of miracle and wonder it is always refreshing to hear from an artist who has lasted long enough to hand down a body of work that contributes to our collective sense of American history—the bulk of whose work could not easily be accused of being instantly gratifying, nor always fashionable. Paul Simon’s songwriting continues to stick in our collective consciousness because it really is that good. He is a meticulous craftsman. The kind whose guild many would be envious to join. As an artist he has mastered the skill of staying accessible while always pushing his listeners further, even challenging them.
I know it might not always seem that way. A few years back, we witnessed the pillow-inducing nostalgia and corporate bundling of his persona through the pricey Simon and Garfunkel Reunion concerts. But Paul Simon still remains. He is still fighting with furry through a heart of wisdom. If you don’t believe me, check out his recent performance of “So Beautiful Or So What?” on Saturday Night Live. Watch it, then remind yourself that the guy is 70 years old. I caught Bob Dylan live a few years ago and it looked as if he was being propped up behind a keyboard by a collection of marionette strings. Not so with Paul Simon—he is still engaged.
You can be sure, this is no “objective” review from a detached connoisseur of Paul Simon’s career. I was in 10th grade when I was handed my first collection of Paul Simon tunes by a friend. It was a mix-tape that had been carefully compiled from more than a few other recordings. I still listen to Paul Simon for the same reason I secretly enjoy wearing the kind of cardigan sweaters that my grandpa might have donned. Still, in spite of the timeless comfort he may induce, Simon’s music has remained subversively unsettling and progressive, which is a classy kind of thing to pull off.
At least two other retrospective collections of Simon’s music have been released over the course of the last few years. So, why another one? And how is the 32-track Paul Simon: Songwriter different than The Essential Paul Simon or The Paul Simon Collection?
The fan appeal of this collection is Simon’s self selection of the music. It is also the key to interpreting the scope of this compilation, of which I am afraid some critics may have missed the point. Allowing Simon to redact this collection guarantees that Paul Simon: Songwriter is not a typical “best-of”. Instead, it is a modest protest against the kind of deconstructed essential-ism that are like nails in the coffin at the end of an artist’s career. His most recent album, So Beautiful or So What?, proves that Simon is still relevant, and this take on a “best-of” package honors his struggle to stay that way.
With that said, this is (admittedly) a collection for a true fan, unique and worth buying because it demonstrates how the depth and breath of his songwriting has evolved. Simon has chosen a select range of live recordings, well-known hits, and little known gems to be included on this release. The inclusion of a booklet with the collection reminded me why the loss of physical music product is lamentable. In addition to a short history lesson, the lyrics that matter are there as well. The booklet serves as a tasty appetizer put together by Chuck Close and music critic Tom Moon. The main course is a progressive sampling of Paul Simon’s career, with not a few surprising flavors along the way.
Upon first listen, it is tempting to get caught up in a track-by-track exegesis of Paul Simon: Songwriter while missing the forest for the trees. This collection is about the history of an artist willing to take risks in the light of changing times and misguided fashions.
The historian in me loves this collection. What is most interesting about the song selections are what they convey about the development of Paul Simon’s approach to musical form within his craft. They are situated in a linear fashion and beckon the listener to pay attention to the depth of the layers Simon has created over the years. The evolution of his songwriting, like his best songs, yield treasures of emotional depth and nuance only after repeated listens over time.
In the accompanying CD booklet, Chuck Close comments on the progression of Simon’s counter-intuitive songwriting methodologies. It is this observation that hints at the soul of Paul Simon: Songwriter. The break in approaches between “pre” and “post” Graceland is pronounced. Melody is never far from rhythm within any of Paul Simon’s music, but his approach to these two elements has shifted over time, with the times, and ahead of the times. The listener experiences the development of these two approaches, the shift from traditional singer-songwriter to an early adopter of a world music vocabulary. Both the purity of his earliest work and the complexity of his later work get better and more complicated the deeper he delves into the forms he embraces. Rhythm and melody kiss each other many times along the way.
For you younger folks, this is akin to a Radiohead compilation demonstrating “pre” and “post” Kid A writing styles. And this is where the brilliance lies. Paul Simon was experimenting with the kind of counter-intuitive rhythmic songwriting we know today before the Internet age invented Kid A, or all of its predecessors. This compilation clearly demonstrates Simon’s organic take on rhythm and songwriting, whether taking the form of reggae, do-wop, folk, R&B, or rock. He has always favored organic soul and instrumentation, even as his songwriting process evolves. Paul Simon proves that he loves music as much as we do by including fine examples of all the influences that have played a part in his story.
As a result, Paul Simon: Songwriter develops like a novel. Simple purity and innocence lead to experimentation, falls from grace, then content cynicism. The end of the first disc climaxes with three tunes from Graceland, the album that many consider to be Simon’s finest to date. The second disc hinges appropriately off the track “The Obvious Child” from The Rhythm of the Saints. Many are particularly fond of this period, and for good reason. All of his influences seemed to converge during the years proceeding Graceland, and the way in which Paul Simon: Songwriter is arranged points that out. The zeitgeist he created through his cross-cultural musical pollination has trickled down, even though it remains under appreciated. One has to wonder about the effect his friendship with the minimalist composer Philip Glass had on the development of his writing style. At its best, the marriage of his best rhythms and lyrics result in some satisfying consummations.
All of this brilliance happened at the end of the Cold War, a time when the world was just transitioning into the Information Age. The way Paul Simon has redacted this collection is enough to convince us that it was Simon who, along with others, foresaw the coming global village. The variety of his influences are more diverse and socially aware than your average singer-songwriter living in Greenwich Village today. He has taken a risk by attempting to showcase this kind of diversity within the space of these two CDs. These songs are not navel-gazers, nor are they too focused on the angst of any particular generation. I think Simon is pushing to show us the risks he has taken and asking us to challenge him to take even more. A lot of these tracks do not represent his most memorable songs. Admittedly, some of these songs date themselves a bit on the musical side (computer generated hand claps anyone?). But to lament these facts is to miss the point of this compilation. From history’s vantage point, Paul Simon: Songwriter is a superb collection from an American master.
Ending the collection with “So Beautiful or So What?” places Simon right were he should be, playing the part of a modern Solomon, asking transcendent questions while challenging his listeners to do the same. The cover portrait of Paul Simon: Songwriter casts him in a noticeably pale and corpse evoking light. There is no doubt that Simon has been actively thinking about his mortality, and inviting us to think about it with him. I hope that in 30 years I am still listening to this recording, in lieu of reading some ghostwritten biography of an American songwriter named Paul Simon. His music will be living history long after he is gone.