There are plenty of Paul Simon collections out there—more than there are original Paul Simon records, in fact—and they’re especially useful if you’re looking for coverage of his earlier golden years. You know the ones, the years that produced songs like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, “Late in the Evening”, and “Still Crazy After All These Years”. Despite that stellar track record, it wasn’t until 1986 that Simon’s biggest album came in the form of Graceland. After that, though, everyone seemed to forget who he was. The audience that fell in love with the South African mbaqanga music of Graceland didn’t seem willing to follow him to South America for The Rhythm of the Saints. Simon’s four records since Graceland have varied in quality (with 2006’s Brian Eno-assisted Surprise being especially strong), but each contained some good songs.
The purpose of The Essential Paul Simon seems to be to cast a new light on those recent tracks. The efficient, filler-free first disc contains the pre-Graceland hits we all know, although not in strictly chronological order (in fact, a thoughtful bit of sequencing places the zydeco of Graceland‘s “That Was Your Mother” beside There Goes Rhymin’ Simon‘s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”).
Disc Two starts with Graceland (which contributes an impressive six tracks), and then borrows pretty evenly from Simon’s output afterwards. “The Obvious Child”, naturally, represents The Rhythm of the Saints, as its vibrant blend of Simon songwriting and Brazilian percussion made Rhythm initially sound like the follow-up to Graceland that everyone was waiting for. Essential‘s inclusion of “Born at the Right Time”, “The Cool, Cool River”, and “Spirit Voices” make the argument that Rhythm of the Saints possessed a more relaxed vibe than “The Obvious Child” led people to believe. Essential also seeks some redemption for Songs from the Capeman, Simon’s musical about the life of Salvador Agron. The three songs found here are quite good, but their musical roots do show, making for some awkward moments (“Adios Hermanos”, in particular feels like it has the stage blocking built right in as Simon and an uncredited female voice trade stanzas). You’re the One‘s “Darling Lorraine” and “Hurricane Eye” are fine lyrically, but something in their arrangements makes them feel like Simon is coasting on the nimble picking style he adopted later in his career. The tracks from Surprise sound like Simon might have been rejuvenated by his time with Brian Eno, although you have to think that, on his own, Simon would never have chosen missteps like the aggressive street-funk vibe of “Outrageous” or an especially gospel-drenched reading of the word “prayer” in “Wartime Prayers”.
Overall, The Essential Paul Simon doesn’t overturn the conventional wisdom that Simon’s recent output falls short of Graceland and everything that came before. Whatever the X-factor that defined Simon’s hits, the newer songs seldom contain that effortless, timeless feel. However, Disc 2 does show that—some perceived tiredness on You’re the One aside—Simon hasn’t quit pushing himself. For anything else you might say about it, Songs from the Capeman was certainly ambitious. Ultimately, The second disc serves as an argument to revisit The Rhythm of the Saints and Surprise; on the flip side, it perhaps holds all you need to keep from Capeman and You’re the One.