Paul Simon: One-Trick Pony / Hearts and Bones / Graceland / The Rhythm of the Saints

Paul Simon
Hearts and Bones (Remastered)
Columbia/Sony Legacy

In keeping with the batch of Paul Simon reissues that began earlier this year with his ’70s solo work, these ostensibly new versions of his ’80s albums (plus The Rhythm of the Saints from 1990) offer very little for the Simon obsessive. Aside from a new remastering job for Graceland, undoubtedly in preparation for the Graceland 25th anniversary box set planned for next spring, these releases are identical in all but packaging to the remastered, expanded editions released by Rhino in 2004.

Then again, we’re not all Simon obsessives. Given the respective cultural omnipresence of Graceland and commercial failure of Hearts and Bones, it’s pretty likely that huge fans of the former have never heard the latter. Intentionally or not, Legacy has done a service to casual fans and neophytes by not only bringing the less popular Simon releases back into the cultural conversation, but by dividing Simon’s catalogue into chronological chunks. Isolated from his earlier releases, Simon’s ’80s work stands as a rich and surprisingly coherent narrative about coming to terms with disconnection.

Rootlessness has been an unmistakable theme in Simon’s work since nearly the beginning, embodied as much in the touring musician’s lament to be homeward bound as in the idealist’s quest for America. By the late ’70s, his work was particularly rife with themes of dislocation and self-doubt. On One-Trick Pony (originally released in 1980 as the soundtrack to the Simon-starring film of the same name), he tries to find consolation in music on “Ace in the Hole”, youthful antics and romance on “Late in the Evening”, and committed love on “Nobody”. But these turn out to be half-baked solutions and are countered throughout. Music proves less than a comfort on “Jonah” (“They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale / But I say there’s no truth to that tale / I know Jonah / Was swallowed by a song”), youthful antics don’t square with adult responsibilities on “God Bless the Absentee”, and, as explained on “Oh, Marion”, “The only time / That love is an easy game / Is when two other people / Are playing it”. Although “Late in the Evening” was the obvious single and has endured on classic rock radio, the unassuming shuffle “That’s Why God Made the Movies” may be One-Trick Pony‘s most illustrative track. Beginning with the ultimate loner line, “When I was born my mother died”, Simon’s narrator can more conceivably settle for the cinema than settle down.

Sonically, One-Trick Pony is an extension of Simon’s ’70s albums, which is to say it’s a little too comfortable at times. As is his habit, he hired some of the best session musicians available at the time — Steve Gadd on drums, Tony Levin on bass, Richard Tee on piano, among others — and their meticulousness, plus the relentless studio perfection sugarcoats the ennui of the lyrics, particularly near the end of the album.

Hearts and Bones, originally released in 1983, is riskier, both musically and lyrically, and more engrossing for it. Partially informed by a failed first marriage and an on-again/off-again relationship with Carrie Fisher, the album is so tied to Simon’s escalating preoccupation with physical and emotional remoteness that it’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised when it failed to move a fan base waiting for the next “Late in the Evening”. On the title track, Simon’s loose retelling of a trip to New Mexico with Fisher, “one and one-half wandering Jews” discover that love and companionship may render our individual quests more, not less, complicated. This may be the most optimistic of the autobiographical romantic relationship songs here, with Simon claiming his ” … heart is allergic / To the woman I love” on the electronics-tinged “Allergies” and sketching the end of his marriage in heartbreaking detail on “Train in the Distance”. Even most of the lighter moments cut a little deeper than you might expect; the two songs named “I Think Too Much” cover paralyzing indecision, and “When Numbers Get Serious” has at least one foot in information-age anxiety. On the two most affecting, enduring songs on Hearts and Bones, Simon tries to find solace in nostalgia. He paints an unlikely picture of “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” delighting in the doo-wop music of his own youth. On album closer “The Late, Great Johnny Ace”, it turns out that there’s no solace in the past, as Simon tours a past of dead heroic Johns — Lennon, Kennedy, and the titular R&B singer. As if the pathos hadn’t been made clear, the song ends on an elegiac Philip Glass-composed coda (there’s no sugarcoating this conclusion on the remaster — an acoustic demo of the song closes out the four bonus tracks).

Oddly, it’s a trifle on Hearts and Bones — the upbeat-sounding “Cars Are Cars”, which contrasts the reliable sameness of objects to the problematic differences among people throughout the world — that provides the greatest narrative bridge to the timeless Graceland. On Graceland, Simon finally embraces rootlessness via a postmodern acceptance of musical hybridity and intellectual uncertainty. While his early forays into reggae on “Mother and Child Reunion” and Latin-tinged grooves on “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” are often said to have paved the way for Simon’s musical reinvention on Graceland, these were essentially Simon as traveler, as tourist. Graceland shows him as musical omnivore, ready to occasionally cede musical control to those very different people that so confounded him on “Cars Are Cars” — largely South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Boyoyo Boys, and the lion’s share of the album’s instrumentalists; but also the Everly Brothers, Adrian Belew, and Los Lobos. He has accepted that the company of others can be a means of spiritual sustenance. “You Can Call Me Al” begins as an existential crisis along the lines of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”, but ultimately finds hope in the companionship between “Betty” and “Al”. In fact, Graceland is largely defined by that spirit of companionship, community, and compromise. A father and son travel to “Graceland” with idealistic dreams of acceptance and redemption; the boy and girl in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” find solace in each others’ arms as they end up sleeping in a doorway; and yet another father manages to balance nostalgia for youthful indiscretions with parental love and responsibility on “That Was Your Mother”. Graceland has aged remarkably well, with its lyrical merits more than matched by its better-documented musical ones.

Unfortunately, the comfort Simon seemed to find on Graceland had some ramifications for its 1990 follow-up, The Rhythm of the Saints. Although Simon shifted the recording and partial musical focus to Brazil, he retained South African influences and brought back major players from Graceland. This doesn’t lead to much inspired synthesis, though. Saints gets bogged down in a mushy barrage of rhythm that’s perfectly pleasant for background listening, but doesn’t lend itself to differentiation. Compounding the problem, Simon takes a more impressionistic approach to lyrics and employs a less melodic delivery, making it less a pop album and more a tonally pleasing, but empty experiment in style. At its best, The Rhythm of the Saints overcomes these problems through a memorable chorus (e.g., single “The Obvious Child”, “Born at the Right Time”), but, song-for-song, it suffers by comparison to Graceland, in particular, but even to the less well regarded One-Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones.

RATING 6 / 10