When you listen to The Paul Simon Songbook and notice the 1965 date attached to most of the songs, you think, “Hey, that’s kind of cool. Demos of Simon & Garfunkel stuff.” If only it were that simple. Apparently, after Simon & Garfunkel’s debut, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, fell on deaf ears, Simon packed his bags and headed to England. While he was there, to hear press accounts tell the tale, the Brits must have been chasing him through the streets like he was Austin Powers. So great was the demand for Paul Simon material (due to successful coffeehouse gigs and exposure on the BBC) that he was rushed into a studio to record just-him-and-an-acoustic-guitar bare-bones versions of his songs.
The result is a batch of urgent-sounding recordings — Simon recorded the entire album in a couple of hours, but you get the sense the songs are also powered by youthful energy and outrage — in so-so sound quality. Plus, when you figure that roughly a half dozen of these songs ended up on Simon & Garfunkel’s breakthrough Sounds of Silence record a year later — and almost everything else ended up on other albums — you might as well just call this a demo.
The Paul Simon Songbook‘s definitely worth a listen, though, especially if you’re well-versed in the Simon & Garfunkel catalog. It goes without saying that, bereft of the patented Simon & Garfunkel harmonies, nothing here threatens what are widely considered the duo’s greatest hits. But Simon’s undeniable songwriting talents are on full display, and the stripped-down setting places renewed emphasis on his lyrics, which obviously hold up just fine. Even if you’re not an S&G completist, though, The Paul Simon Songbook is an enjoyable listen.
For the most part, the songs are fully formed, with few revelations. “The Sounds of Silence” sounds angry and more urgent than the later version, (as does “I Am a Rock”), but it’s only by a matter of degrees. Probably the biggest surprise is “A Simple Desultory Philippic”, which boasts vastly different lyrics, (such as referencing Lyndon Johnson instead of Robert McNamara), a different guitar rhythm, a more biting tone, and a much less overt debt to Bob Dylan than is obvious on the version found on 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme. It’s nice to have a rendition of “April Come She Will” with Simon’s vocals as opposed to Garfunkel’s, and it’s fascinating to hear “The Side of a Hill” as a standalone piece, (it became the countermelody for “Scarborough Fair”).
Simon fought the release of this album for ages; it’s been out-of-print for roughly twenty years, and this marks its first appearance on CD. Reportedly, Simon’s perfectionist streak caused him to view Songbook as a sub-par portion of his catalog. Presumably, with the recent release of much of his catalog in remastered and expanded form, it seemed a good time to slip this one out as well. He needn’t have worried so much; Simon & Garfunkel’s legacy — not to mention Simon’s own as a solo artist — is well-established, so it’s not like Songbook could have done his reputation any real damage if it truly sucked. However, it doesn’t suck. The unadorned nature works wonders for a few songs and betrays a few others, but it offers an interesting glimpse into Simon’s formative years, when the commercial prospects of his partnership with Garfunkel were still unknown, and while he was rabidly absorbing English folk influences. Well worth checking out for Simon fans.