Review: Paul Simon, “Songwriter” and Expanded, Remastered Albums (1980-1990)
It’s 1971, and Aretha Franklin has just introduced the world to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a rousing, spiritual anthem that could have been written decades if not centuries ago. She takes the song to the top of the charts. Its notoriety leads to the rise of jobbing songwriter Paul Simon, who no longer needs to kick around the Brill Building in its waning days. Simon’s career kicks off in earnest the following year with the release of his self-titled solo album. It’s a quirky, offbeat affair, touching on reggae (“Mother and Child Reunion”) and folk-rock and blues (“Peace Like a River”). He pursues a doggedly personal path over the next decade, following his muse through various sonic experiments, expanding his fan base and his esteem among modern singer-songwriters. In his later years, Simon scores a personal triumph with the Broadway success of The Capeman, his musicalization of the life, and redemption, of convicted murderer Salvador Agron. It’s also a look back at his often forgotten early days when he joined the now-noted architect Arthur Garfunkel as part of the doo-wopping duo Tom and Jerry.
It’s tempting to imagine the above, listening to Paul Simon’s new two-disc anthology simply titled Songwriter (Legacy Recordings 88697 96516-2, 2011). Its 32 tracks convincingly craft an alternative history of the artist. Simon’s once and future partner Art Garfunkel is absent from its two discs, as are some of Simon’s most enduring hits, like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” or “You Can Call Me Al,” which introduced him to the MTV generation. Accompanied by a generous book of lyrics, Songwriter asks its listener to consider Simon as a maker of songs first, apart from the baggage of a nearly-fifty year career played out in public. On this count, the collection is unimpeachable.
Songwriter seems tailored to the buyer who isn’t a diehard collector but is looking to expand his Simon collection beyond, say, The Essential Paul Simon (originally released on Warner Bros. and since reissued on Legacy) or worn-out copies of Bridge Over Troubled Water and Graceland. It’s to the artist’s credit that the album takes on an appropriately ruminative tone with an emphasis on deeper cuts. The vibe on the first disc of Songwriter is a predominantly mellow one, epitomized in the reflective tone Simon adopts in his solo “The Sound of Silence,” the album’s lone unreleased track. It hails from Simon’s concert at New York’s Webster Hall this past June 6. It’s a mainly chronological journey, from 1971 through 1986. The most interesting selection here is Aretha Franklin’s gospel-infused take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” itself a model of restraint and perfectly calibrated power. As the collection is titled Songwriter and not Singer, one wishes Simon had chosen even more interpretations of his songs by other artists. (Simon’s songs have proven particularly malleable, whether rendered by The Bangles, Emmylou Harris or David Bowie.)
One hopes that the omissions of Simon and Garfunkel songs like “America,” “Old Friends,” “The Only Living Boy in New York” and even “Mrs. Robinson” aren’t any reflection of Simon’s feelings towards those songs. The 1960s are represented by just three tracks: the recent live version of “The Sound of Silence,” Simon’s 1991 solo performance of “The Boxer” in Central Park, and Franklin’s “Bridge.” It’s hard to imagine that Simon felt constrained by his time with Garfunkel, given how much the duo accomplished in such a succinct period of time. (Right place, right time, indeed.) Yet Simon’s 1971 self-titled debut announced an artist looking to expand his boundaries, and virtually every subsequent solo LP did just that, whether looking back to his street corner harmony days or forward to world music explorations. That album’s reggae-influenced “Mother and Child Reunion” is one of the more boisterous songs on the set, along with the exuberant “Kodachrome” from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and “Late in the Evening” from 1980’s otherwise-overlooked One-Trick Pony.
In this song suite, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” with its melody as comfortable as an old pair of shoes, is a respite from the frank emotional roller-coaster of “Hearts and Bones,” informed by Simon’s tumultuous relationship with writer/actress Carrie Fisher: “One and one-half wandering Jews, returned to their natural coasts/To resume old acquaintances and step out occasionally/And speculate who had been damaged the most.” You can’t see these old lovers meeting on the street last night, talking about some old times and drinking themselves some beers. Yet the feeling is that the narrator of the song emerged wounded but wiser from the experience. It’s hard not to think about Simon’s growth and maturation, and by extension, your own, while listening to this sequence of songs. Even the stark cover portrait on Songwriter shows Simon, now aged 70, addressing aging in a matter-of-fact way. (For Fisher’s part, she has attained her own catharsis, and uses Simon’s song “Allergies” in her stage show to illustrate just what was wrong with their relationship and subsequent, brief marriage.)
How does Songwriter address Paul Simon in the 1980s and beyond? Hit the jump!
The 1980s found so many artists embracing excess in an America buoyed by prosperity and a strong national pride. So many works by veteran artists reflected the bright new colors in fashion. But Simon didn’t make the typical concessions to his style even as he pushed the envelope by discovering new sounds in South Africa and employing some of that nation’s most notable musicians. The sessions that produced Graceland weren’t without their share of controversy, but Simon emerged triumphant with multiple Grammy wins and the most commercially successful album of his career. On that album’s exultant title track (which closes the first disc of Songwriter), Simon makes a pilgrimage to Memphis, Tennessee, and Elvis Presley’s mansion where “we will all be received.” There’s another clear thread in all of these songs, of Simon celebrating music itself, whether on “Graceland,” the poignant “American Tune” or the haunting “Spirit Voices” from The Rhythm of the Saints: “Some stories are magical, meant to be sung/Songs from the mouth of the river, when the world was young/And all of these spirit voices rules the night.” Best of all might be the fantasia “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War,” in which Simon evokes images of the couple finding solace from the reality of war in the music of The Five Satins, the Moonglows, the Penguins and the Orioles!
The artist has a clear fondness for that 1990 album, the follow-up to Graceland and continuation of that album’s ethnic sound. Many of the tracks on Rhythm were built around prominent Brazilian percussion, which Simon melded with the sounds of both New York and South Africa. The songwriting itself was a bit more impressionistic, too, and less immediately accessible. Four of its tracks appear on Songwriter. (Only 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is as well-represented.)
You’ll almost certainly savor the two tracks selected from Simon’s ill-fated 1998 Broadway musical The Capeman, written with the poet Derek Walcott. For his debut Broadway score, Simon melded the sounds of 1950s doo-wop, Latin rhythms, soul and gospel together to tell the story of Salvador Agron, the murderous New York youth who turned his life around in his later years. However powerful, the story of redemption wasn’t an easy pill for audiences to swallow, and the revolving door of creative personnel couldn’t help the big-budgeted show from appearing unfocused and unclear in its intentions. It received a critical lambasting (think this year’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and shuttered after just 68 performances. Yet Simon’s concept album of the score preserves a tapestry of song that hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years; it’s even led to concert productions in 2008 and 2010, with further revivals likely to follow. “Born in Puerto Rico” is the potent, dramatic introduction to Agron and his gang, The Vampires, while the fun “Quality” is infectious doo-wop worthy of Simon’s friends and inspirations, Little Anthony and the Imperials. It’s one of the most remarkable finds on Songwriter, with a girl group response in the song and a roaring sax solo.
The final tracks on Songwriter bring Paul Simon’s story up to date. Three tracks come from the Brian Eno collaboration of 2006, Surprise, in which Simon wrote around the ethereal soundscapes devised by both the songwriter and producer. This year’s So Beautiful or So What was hailed as a return to a more traditional composing style for Simon, armed once again with just a guitar, at the ready to write melodies first. His songwriting still draws on big themes and big statements, no surprise from the man who in his callow youth gave the world “I Am a Rock” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” No less a subject than God speaks in “Love and Hard Times.” The song has Simon’s unique voice but also echoes his contemporary Randy Newman in its mordant wit and observations: “’Well, we got to get going,’ said the Lord to the Son/There are galaxies yet to be born/Creation is never done/Anyway, these people are slobs here/If we stay it’s bound to be a mob scene/But, disappear and it’s love and hard times.”
Vic Anesini was placed in charge of the compilation remastering, and the sound is expectedly good and consistent. The thick booklet features an introduction by noted painter and photographer Chuck Close, and a scholarly essay by Tom Moon who refers to the collection as Simon’s “director’s cut sampler.” It’s an accurate description. The notes are housed in the slipcase along with the two CDs in one standard-size jewel case. (The jewel case has its own insert, with photographs, hand-written lyrics and images of Simon’s album catalogue.) Both the booklet and slipcase are glossy; it’s the kind of stock that looks splendid but within moments has your fingerprints all over it!
The songs of Paul Simon are epic and intimate, grand and casual. Should Songwriter serve the purpose of introducing the artist’s albums to new listeners, they don’t have to look too far to keep listening. Four more of those titles are available today in new editions from Legacy following the last batch from June. Two are underrated gems and two are smash hits. In the former category you’ll find 1980’s One-Trick Pony (Legacy 88697 93271-2), the soundtrack to the film written by and starring Simon. It features the hit “Late in the Evening.” One-Trick Pony is joined by Hearts and Bones (88697 93269-2), the 1983 solo LP that almost appeared as a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album to have been called Think Too Much. In the latter category are two unqualified triumphs, 1986’s Graceland (88697 84250-2) and 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints (88697 89880-2). Each of these albums contains four bonus tracks with the exception of Graceland, which contains three bonus tracks. Content-wise and sound-wise, every one of these titles is identical to their past expanded incarnations on the Warner Bros./Rhino label, excepting (again!) Graceland. This title bears a 2011 remastering credit by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound. Could this be a sign of things to come for next year’s planned anniversary box set? Calbi’s new remaster is fine and detailed, befitting the richly-textured album. All of these re-reissues are now packaged in jewel cases rather than digipaks.
Paul Simon: Songwriter may not be a vital addition to the man’s oeuvre. But if you’re looking to build on the wealth of hits offered in The Essential Paul Simon or to dig just a little deeper beneath the surface of his familiar hits, you could hardly do better than this thoughtful collection. In years to come, Mr. Simon’s own voice will undoubtedly be among those spirit voices, ruling the night.