In the trailer from Paul Simon‘s latest release, Seven Psalms, the singer-songwriter explains his latest work is an “argument about belief or not”. The musician confronts his mortality head-on and wonders about God, the reasons for existence, and death. When he’s done, Simon hasn’t found any answers to his questions, or maybe he’s discovered too many responses that leave him more confused than when he started. The answer is there is no answer until perhaps it is too late. He’s not the first person to come to that conclusion. The value of Simon’s record lies in its pondering of life’s mysteries.
That doesn’t mean Simon has nothing to say. This is music, not religion or poetry. The fingering of his acoustic guitar strings often expresses more than mere language. The words and music can flow together or seemingly contradict in substance and meaning. Seven Psalms is Simon’s 15th solo album. It’s almost entirely Simon alone, with some assistance from his wife Edie Brickell, Wynton Marsalis, and the British vocal ensemble VOCES8. Simon can be serious or funny, and sometimes both simultaneously.
Simon’s sense of humor can be dark. Life might be a curse, not a benediction. By the time one reaches heaven, it may be full, and the gates may be closed. People may be no better or more intelligent than cows. We all slip and slide through life. Ha ha ha. But one can tell Simon can’t just slough it off. He knows existence can be beautiful or ugly as well. Life is not a joke, not even a cosmic one. It is more than that.
Simon said Seven Psalms‘ inspiration came to him in a dream. He would wake up between 3:00 and 5:30 am two or three times a week, and the words came to him at night. He would not try to interpret what it all meant as much as leave them uncensored and complete them. He intended the work to be absorbed as a whole. Although the material was broken up into seven distinct parts (Seven Psalms: “The Lord / Love Is Like a Braid / My Professional Opinion / Your Forgiveness / Trail of Volcanoes / The Sacred Harp / Wait”), Simon did not separate them into individual tracks.
John Lennon famously sang, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Simon takes a more convoluted approach. Simon explicitly defines “the Lord” more than 40 times in Seven Psalms. The different definitions are not necessarily congruent. He identifies the Lord as everything from an “engineer”, a “forest ranger”, and a” record producer” to “a puff of smoke”, “the COVID virus”, and “a meal for the poorest of the poor”. The multiple meanings suggest that the singer sees God as an entity outside himself. When Simon looks in the mirror, he only sees his reflection, not that of the heavenly host.
Traditionally, psalms are songs of praise. That doesn’t seem to be an accurate, descriptive term to use here. Simon isn’t celebrating a deity or even himself. He’s no Whitman. He looks at others and feels alone and disconnected. “Life is a meteor,” for Simon, not even a comet that comes back around every so many years. But I disagree.
More than 50 years ago, the musician released his first solo record, The Paul Simon Songbook. The opening cut was “I Am a Rock”, later recorded by Simon and Garfunkel. Simon still finds himself an island in the sea of humanity. Despite his hope and the sweet vocal harmonies of his wife Edie in the last psalm, Seven Psalms suggests Simon continues to believe we live and die alone. He ends the record with the word “Amen”, not hallelujah, for a reason.