What makes this music connect is Simon’s ability to make a spiritual setting feel down-to-earth, what you might expect from one of American pop music’s greatest conversational songwriters. “I heard two cows in a conversation/One called the other one a name/In my professional opinion/All cows in the country must bear the blame,” Simon sings, showing us that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor, however somber the setting. Rolling Stone
There are red flags here. Not stop signs– but red flags.
Back to the cows: this is witty?
Here is a review I find more trustworthy (not because it disagrees but because I suspect it is a less compromised source.) The Guardian.
Here are some lyrics from Simon’s previous album (the song: “Love is Eternal Sacred Light”):
Love is eternal sacred light
Free from the shackles of time
Evil is darkness, sight without sight
A demon that feeds on the mind
Really? Love is light, evil is darkness? Fifty years of kicking around New York City, touring, writing and recording songs, partying with the glitterati, hobnobbing with the elite minds of our culture, and your opus starts to look like Hallmark cards? “A demon that feeds on the mind”?
A college English professor would immediately ask the obvious question: “how is it like a demon that feeds on the mind?” And yes, Simon latest work is the very definition of sophomoric.
“Free from the shackles of time”? What does that even mean?
This is not new for Simon: it’s the updated self-conscious posturing of “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright” and “El Conder Pasa” and “American Tune”. It sadly reminds me of the faux profundity of Mumford and Sons. It is Simon trying to sound like Leonard Cohen, or like himself writing “The Sound of Silence”, a song that barely escapes pretentiousness–but does– because of its vivid imagery (“the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/and tenement halls” is pretty good even if familiar).
Or how about this (from Seven Psalms):
Dip your hand in Heaven’s waters
Dip your hand in Heaven’s waters
All of life’s abundance in a drop of condensation
Dip your hand in Heaven’s waters
Oh come on! It sounds like Leonard Cohen on an off day, like something you wouldn’t even see in his notebooks on display at the Leonard Cohen museum, wherever it is. It’s banal. It’s pathetic. It is transparently calculated to sound like something that sounds profound.
All right Simon– you want to get “spiritual”? You want to sound like this (Leonard Cohen doing the real thing)?
If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before
I shall speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for, if it be your will
Or compare it to earlier Simon, perhaps his most telling song of all:
Takin’ time to treat your friendly neighbors honestly
I’ve just been fakin’ it
I’m not really makin’ it
This feeling of fakin’ it
I still haven’t shakin’ it
No, you haven’t.
Watch the video on the Guardian’s website above. It’s brilliant, but not in the way most people think it is. Everybody I know will come away from it impressed with what a musical genius Paul Simon is not because the video proves he is a musical genius but because a sophisticate like Paul Simon knows exactly how to push those buttons– scenes of him trying out various exotic instruments, apparently directing the strings, coaching a choir, giving the impression that he is way more of a musical genius than you thought, in full control of every aspect of his music. It takes a cur like me to notice that it does not show that he is a musical genius– that takes actual music– but just that he knows how to look like one. The corresponding musical tracks are all refinement and almost no invention.
Firstly, I don’t know of many reputable critics who would credit Simon as a one of pop music’s “greatest conversational songwriters”. Well, pardon me, now I do. But I have never forgotten what is perhaps the most pungent back-hand compliment I’ve ever read in reference to a singer-songwriter, in regard to “The Boxer”: “one of Paul Simon’s few unpretentious songs”. A remark that incisive and accurate doesn’t die– I’ve remembered it for 40 years, and always when I am listening to Simon. It used to be a consistent gripe about Simon’s work. Has he aged out of those critics? As I hear snatches of Simon’s newest work, his “farewell” (we’ll see), it lives on. “The Boxer” remains his best song. Simon was a fine song-writer with regrettable tendencies and a thin skin. His latest work is a drag on his oeuvre.
Simon sings “the lord is a meal for the poorest, a welcome door to the stranger…. The Covid virus is the Lord/The Lord is the ocean rising.” Seriously? This passes for poetic lyrics nowadays? Look folks: those are banal images. They are over and done with in a flash. How is the Lord a “meal” for the poorest? And if he is– one might speculate, a “meal”– charity– or a “welcome door” — hospitality– how is he also global warming (“the ocean rising”)? Is the listener supposed to fill in the gaps? (One thinks of a far better aphorism: “the opiate of the masses”.) They don’t evoke anything more than sophomoric ramblings skipping the detail work, the specifics, the real experiences and incidents that inspire real poetry, and sliding right into the aphorism.
There is mystery, oh yes. The mystery is, why does the New York Times critic think this is deep stuff? It is actually banal. Simon adopts phrases from Cohen, I would suggest, but he doesn’t have the gravitas to fill it with meaning. Cohen brilliantly anchors his spirituality in his carnal impulses: “She tied you to her kitchen chair/She broke your throne and she cut your hair/and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”. That’s how you get to Hallelujah. Not through mumbling warmed-over vaguely spiritual platitudes or “the lord is the water rising”.. Simon gives the impression of having glossed over a Reader’s Digest “Today’s Spiritual Sayings” page. How about something like “religion is a smile on a dog”, a far more rich, allusive image. Ironically from Edie Brickell. (Along with “philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks” and “religion is a light in the fog”. Both more striking than Simon’s “the Lord is a virgin forest/the Lord is the earth I ran on”.)
The New York Times observes: “its informality is exactingly planned.” That’s what some of us have never liked about Simon. I am surprised that the Times followed that comment up with generous praise. Yes, Simon emits more platitudes about forgiveness and acceptance without once identifying a single sin.
Simon is a very good songwriter, but he is never not conscious of himself as “a poet and a one-man band” and never just a “one-man band”. He’s always had a grievance about not being regarded as just as great as Bob Dylan or The Beatles or Billy Joel (he is greater than Billy Joel, but leave that aside for now).
And it appears that the Guardian and Rolling Stone and New York Times bought it. Yeah, you have to be pretty fucking arrogant to call them out, but I do: they have been far too credulous. It is possible, considering that Simon is near the end of life, to be generous without being slavish. Go back and try again.
When he and Brickell finish this expansive work by harmonizing, “Children, get ready/It’s time to come home/Amen,” it has the kind of finality you expect from a great composer summoning many decades of accrued wisdom.
I hate it when musicians bring their wives or children into their recordings, even if, as in the case of Brickell, that person has had a career in her own right. It reeks of privilege. It is an insult to the usual talents that fill those spaces on recordings by notable artists. It always feels to me like “honey, why can’t I be on your album?” It draws the mind to McCartney’s embarrassing attempts to put Linda in Wings. I remember Neil Young performing with Emmy Lou Harris and Michele Shocked and his wife Pegi and felt sure that Harris and Shocked must have felt more than a little insulted at the idea that Young’s wife belonged in that chorus.
The lord is my engineer / The Lord is my record producer
And let’s identify the obvious: is Simon taking another note from Leonard Cohen here? If he is, one immediately suspects he took note of the esteem Cohen has earned over the years for his overtly spiritual references (among a host of carnal allusions) and decided to weigh in with one of his own. Rolling Stone acts if listeners should be delightfully surprised. No, but here’s a list of things that could have been on a Paul Simon album that would have surprised me:
- an appearance by Art Garfunkel
- an unpretentious song
- a cover of “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols
- a reboot of “Fakin’ It”
- a cover of “Cold, Cold Ground” by Tom Waits
- an apology for “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard”
What even I would never expect: a cover of a Bob Dylan song. My theory is that Simon would fear that it would draw a contrast and comparison to his own work– unfavorably. I remember wandering through Germany somewhere and stumbling into a coffee shop and listening to some good singer-songwriter tunes on the radio when “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” by Dylan came on. It’s not one of his greatest songs, but even minor Dylan in that context was strikingly superior to everything before and after that was not Dylan. I suspect Simon would be worried about the same effect if he jammed a Dylan track into the middle of several of his own.
I am surprised at Rolling Stone rolling over on this one. Who got to them? What’s in it for “Rolling Stone”?
Paul Simon’s best album, as an album, remains Bookends. Quintessentially hip, polished, sophisticated, expertly produced and recorded, the most distinctively Simon and Garfunkelish of all the Simon and Garfunkel albums. Should be in record box of every English major in America, at least in their sophomore year. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Time is a fine album. Just fine. “A Poem on the Underground Wall” is under-rated. Bridge Over Troubled Waters has too much junk on it, like “Cecilia” and “Baby Driver”– a vain attempt to rock. There Goes Rhymin’ Simon can’t be forgiven for “Was a Sunny Day” and the fey title. One Trick Pony was as horrible as the movie. Graceland (1986) seemed like an attempt to transform Simon into a musician’s musician inspiring admiration and envy for the funky African textures that, weirdly, echoed Neil Diamond’s Tap Root Manuscript from 1970. Both of them resonate uncomfortably today.
For the record, in my opinion, Paul Simon’s best songs:
- The Boxer
- The Sound of Silence
- Mrs. Robinson
- Hazy Shade of Winter
- Fakin’ It
- A Poem on the Underground Wall
- You Can Call Me Al
- Hearts and Bones
- The Only Living Boy in New York
- Bridge Over Troubled Waters
- Mother and Child Reunion
Worst (and over-rated)
- 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
- Loves Me Like a Rock
- Me and Julio Down by the School Yard
If you thought “Graceland” was special, please consider “From Galway to Graceland” by Richard Thompson to see how musical allusions to Presley’s monument to self-indulgence should be done.
And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
Simon writes about ghosts and empty sockets and ghosts and empties who will all be “received” at Graceland. I suppose it suggests that Presley’s mansion provides America with almost a religious symbol of aspiration, to be “received”, perhaps blessed, redeemed, forgiven. Okay– obviously, I’m filling in the blanks. There are lot of blanks to be filled in. Simon’s lyrics are unspecific and unattached. They are tropes without gravity.
She was humming Suspicion,
That’s the song she liked best
She had Elvis I Love You
Tattooed on her breast
The lyrics are too good to leave these out:
Ah, they came in their thousands
From the whole human race
To pay their respects
At his last resting place
But blindly she knelt there
And she told him her dreams
And she thought that he answered
Or that’s how it seems
I get chills just copying and pasting them.
Simon is very good at creating the perception that he is a serious, thoughtful, imaginative, original talent. He has written a few fine songs, but I think he is not capable of the kind of powerful, original evocative piece like Thompson’s “Galway to Graceland”. It’s instructive how the two songs are different. Simon evokes a sense of solidarity with the communal nostalgia for the fantasy represented by a crass monument to Elvis Presley’s popular success. But he doesn’t regard it as crass. He’s playing to a touchstone of Americana without probing it’s implications, the vanity, the superficiality of Presley’s later career. Thompson, in contrast, probes deeply into the delusions at the heart of the worship of Presley’s corrupt later persona. He observes, unlike Simon who genuflects. He gets into the mind of a fan and explores: what is she sees in Elvis? How does it relate to the dreariness of her own real world? How is Elvis’s public image a communal delusion of intimacy and familiarity? What happens if it plays out, as it does in the song? It’s a work of genius. Simon’s “Graceland” is a work of terminal niftiness.
Another version of the good one. Simon’s version is about Simon suggesting to us that he has deep thoughts about Elvis. Thompson’s song really is deep, because it is about a fan, and Elvis’ tarnishing effect on fandom, and how the illusions this relationship creates can be damaging and disturbing. The rock’n’roll rebel who congealed into the obese depressed shallow figure who died on the toilet, constipated to death by voluminous prescription drugs and surrounded by sycophants who can’t bear to tell him the truth about himself.