More than 45 years ago, Paul Simon dramatized a journey “to look for America” in the song boldly and simply called “America.” Over 3-1/2 gorgeously elegiac minutes beginning with hymn-like vocalizing, Simon abandoned conventional song structure and rhyme to portray two young people searching for the heart of this promised land. The conversational lyric is both deceptively simple and densely packed. Optimism (“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together/I’ve got some real estate here in my bag”) cedes to weariness (“’Kathy,’ I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,’ Michigan seems like a dream to me now/It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw/I’ve come to look for America…’”), and humor is tempered with a darkness bubbling just under the surface: “Laughing on the bus/Playing games with the faces/She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy/I said, ‘Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera…’” But with the climactic, shattering proclamation that “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why” Simon expands his purview from two-character intimacy to something far more universal. “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America,” he and Art Garfunkel repeat with a probing urgency. What does America mean to those masses? Would Paul and Kathy – and their generation – ever find it? Could the dreams implicit in the country’s promise ever be fulfilled?
When a landmark album arrived almost two decades later, one could have wondered: had Paul Simon finally found America? On the title track of 1986’s Graceland, the singer-narrator makes a pilgrimage to the home of Elvis Presley, where he and his son “will be received.” But he’s also travelling in search of a state of grace. On “Graceland,” memory, history, fantasy and reality all melded into a whole both earthy and spiritual. The song encapsulated Paul Simon’s art: looking inward and outward, forward and back, for America. Paul Simon’s America isn’t just the New Jersey Turnpike or Memphis, Tennessee, but Bleecker Street and Corona, Queens, the Mardi Gras and Puerto Rico. He’s cast his net wider, too, to Brazil and Africa. But wherever he’s sojourned in song, bringing new characters to life, it’s been with an intellect’s curiosity, a poet’s sensibility and a rock-and-roller’s attitude. Those travels are well-documented in a new box set from Legacy Recordings. The 15-CD Paul Simon – The Complete Albums Collection collects in one package Simon’s twelve studio albums and two live concert recordings, and it’s the most comprehensive look at the artist’s ouevre yet. It’s joined by a 20-track anthology, Over the Bridge of Time: A Paul Simon Retrospective. For the first time on a single disc compilation, Bridge draws on Simon’s solo material as well as that of Simon and Garfunkel.
Both releases trace Simon’s musical evolution. From heroes like Little Anthony and the Imperials and the Everly Brothers, he gleaned how to merge his own voice with that of partner and pal Art Garfunkel into a powerful whole. But where did he learn the tools to become one of the sixties’ most literate and mature tunesmiths? Simon’s songs eloquently mused on the dissatisfaction of his generation, and though some accused the young man of being “too serious,” he frequently utilized a wicked sense of humor to skewer those persons and institutions he felt deserving. He tapped into something even greater with 1970’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and followed Simon and Garfunkel’s break-up album of the same name with a solo work that brought the focus back to the personal. Since then, the singer and songwriter has never stopped pushing his own envelope to create new ways to synthesize sounds from around the country and the world – even if the songs always end up sounding, thankfully, like “Paul Simon songs.”
Join us after the jump for a closer look, won’t you?
II. And I Ain’t No Fool for Love Songs That Whisper in My Ears
Nearly a decade ago, in 2004, Rhino and Warner Bros. Records released The Studio Recordings 1972-2000 encompassing nine studio albums and thirty bonus tracks. This box covered the period between Paul Simon (1972) and You’re the One (2000). As Simon has released two more studio albums since 2000 (Surprise, 2006 and So Beautiful or So What, 2011) and overseen reissue of more of his back catalogue, The Complete Albums Collection is an update to, and an expansion of, that original box set. Unlike the Rhino box, it includes two live albums, 1974’s Live Rhymin’ and 1991’s Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park. Simon reclaims Simon & Garfunkel material on both sets, including “Homeward Bound,” “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” “The Boxer,” “The Sound of Silence” and “America.” (2012’s Live in New York City is not included.) It also rewinds to 1965, when the young folk troubadour recorded an acoustic LP in Swinging London. This solo debut, The Paul Simon Songbook, is restored to its proper place in the canon here.
Simon’s restless spirit – and likely, competitive edge – is evident throughout The Complete Albums Collection. His growth as a songwriter between 1965’s folk-oriented The Paul Simon Songbook and 1972’s Paul Simon is nearly as substantial as, say, between Tom and Jerry’s “Hey, Schoolgirl” and Simon and Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. With Paul Simon, co-produced by longtime S&G associate Roy Halee, the artist cast aside the specter of his former partner by emphasizing quirky storytelling and less delicate production. His world music fascinations – that would find their fullest expressions on the following decade’s Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints – were indulged on the Jamaica-recorded reggae of “Mother and Child Reunion,” and a host of jazz players like Stephane Grappelli, Airto Moreira and Ron Carter added yet another dimension to the album’s sound. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” proved that Simon’s hitmaking powers were intact; “Duncan” proved that his gift for character studies hadn’t dulled, either.
With co-producer Phil Ramone, Simon’s artistic and commercial success continued to grow, with only the sky the limit, on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973, includes “Kodachrome,” “Something So Right,” “American Tune,” “Loves Me Like a Rock”), Still Crazy After All These Years (1975, contains the title track, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Simon and Garfunkel reunion “My Little Town”) and One-Trick Pony (1980, contains “Late in the Evening”). Rhymin’ Simon may still be his quintessential solo statement, with Muscle Shoals soul sitting alongside New Orleans jazz and gospel – all aspects of Simon’s distinctive musical persona. “American Tune” is complementary to the earlier “America,” ruminating once more on the country’s identity filtered through a personal lens: “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/Or driven to its knees/Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right/For we’ve lived so well so long/Still, when I think of the road/We’re traveling on/I wonder what’s gone wrong…” The lyricist goes on to describe a dream of death and the rising of the soul, and then masterfully invokes The Statue of Liberty and the Mayflower without ever losing the casual air of a natural spinner of yarns: “Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right/It’s all right, it’s all right/You can’t be forever blessed/Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day/And I’m trying to get some rest/That’s all…I’m trying to get some rest.” Still Crazy is a bit more wry and laid-back than its predecessor, though “My Little Town” was a bold rock return for Simon and Garfunkel. One-Trick Pony came after a five-year recording hiatus, but the nonstop Latin-fueled groove of “Late in the Evening” illustrated that Simon was anything but the titular phrase.
1983’s Hearts and Bones reunited Simon with Halee, and Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman also contributed to the production of this rather transitional album. It was famously born from the ashes of a Simon and Garfunkel reunion project and was perhaps too subtle for commercial consumption, with low-key musings on two of Simon’s favorite topics – love and music…particularly doo-wop. If Hearts and Bones was a palette cleanser, then, so be it. Graceland followed in 1986, introducing Simon to the MTV generation and generating great controversy due to Simon’s breaking of the U.N.’ cultural boycott on apartheid-stricken South Africa when he recorded with that country’s musicians. Graceland revitalized Simon, won multiple Grammy Awards and set the stage for 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints, in which the musical inspiration came from Latin America. It was less melodically accessible than Graceland but even more adventurous, combining Latin and South American musicians with jazz, R&B and rock stylists.
Only one other studio album followed in the 1990s for the artist, by now an elder statesman. 1997’s Songs from the Capeman previewed the ambitious, unconventional, and misunderstood Broadway musical crafted by Simon and co-lyricist Derek Walcott. The Capeman musicalized the tale of convicted murdered Salvador Agron, and ruminated on rehabilitation, redemption and the nature of forgiveness. The troubled production folded after just 68 performances, but its Tony Award-nominated score lives on – a heady fusion of Broadway, street corner doo-wop, folk, gospel and Latin sounds – thanks to Songs from the Capeman and the digital-only release of the musical’s original cast recording. Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario and Sara Ramirez all joined Simon on this compelling collection of songs. It’s certainly one of the hidden gems in The Complete Albums Collection.
IV. But the Fighter Still Remains
Since 2000, Simon has given us three new studio efforts. 2000’s You’re the One updated the ethos of Hearts and Bones, as it’s another low-key, deliberate, and poetic reflection of a singer-songwriter. It represented a step back from the theatricality of The Capeman and the often boisterous world-music explorations of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. The international rhythms are still a major component of You’re the One, but Simon’s writing ventured as close to art-song territory (sans the baroque, stately trappings usually associated with that genre) as it ever had before. Simon was rewarded with a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year with this unexpected “comeback.” And 2006’s Surprise was just that: a collaborative effort with avant-garde pioneer and architect of the “sonic landscape” Brian Eno. Surprise took the songwriting style of You’re the One further, with most songs free of conventional choruses, while Eno crafted dreamy yet organic soundscapes around the music and lyrics. Alongside reflections on love and faith, Simon even acknowledged George W. Bush-era America in compositions like “How Can You Live in the Northeast” and “Wartime Prayers.”
Another five years passed before So Beautiful or So What, the final disc in The Complete Albums Collection. So Beautiful, on which Simon reunited with co-producer Phil Ramone, was the album for which many longtime devotees had been waiting. All of the latter-day Simon hallmarks were present – rhythmic loops, polyrhythms, world music beats – but in the service of some of the most compact, accessible and melodic songs he had composed in decades. The stylistic shift might have come because Simon was once again writing on a guitar rather than building from rhythm first. Whatever the cause, though, the tightly sequenced So Beautiful confronted 2011 head-on, with an emphasis on faith and spirituality (“The Afterlife,” “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” “Questions for the Angels,” “Love and Blessings,” “Love and Hard Times”) but rendered with the kind of grace and sly humor only Simon could provide. He still hasn’t returned to a “traditional” guitar-pop album to reconnect with the audience in the manner of so many of his contemporaries, but So Beautiful is one of the happiest unions of Paul Simon, Songwriter and Paul Simon, Sculptor of Sounds.
The Complete Albums Collection features 37 bonus tracks, all grouped by related album and appended to each disc: 30 from the 2004 Rhino box; two from the 2004 CD reissue of The Paul Simon Songbook; two from the 2011 Live Rhymin’ reissue; and the three additional tracks added for Legacy’s 2012 Graceland reissue. The Rhino set was remastered by Bill Inglot and Dan Hersch; the current box has been produced by Inglot and Steve Berkowitz, while overall remastering credits go to Vic Anesini, Greg Calbi and Hersch. There are not individual remastering credits for each album, but Concert in the Park has been newly remastered for this box set.
Whereas the previous box offered no liner notes, Legacy’s new package contains a three-page appreciation by Ashley Kahn in its 50-page booklet. The well-designed booklet additionally makes room for full album credits (including personnel for each track) and discographical annotation. However, it lacks Simon’s lyrics. Each album’s words were reprinted in the individual booklets contained in the previous set, and it’s a disappointment that they haven’t been carried over here. Each LP in the new box is packaged in a mini-LP style familiar to any purchasers of past Legacy Albums Collections such as this year’s Nilsson treasure chest. (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Concert in the Park have gatefold sleeves.) The fifteen discs are housed in a sturdy box with a magnetic lid that opens out.
The other major missing piece of The Complete Album Collection is actually just one song. The November 1977 Columbia release of Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc. included two studio tracks otherwise unavailable on an album: “Stranded in a Limousine” and the hit single “Slip Slidin’ Away.” In 2004 as here, “Stranded” has been added to the remastered edition of One-Trick Pony. The original “Slip Slidin’” was, oddly, overlooked in favor of a September 1976 demo version. Good as this demo is – and indeed, all of the bonus material is chockablock with fascinating insight into Simon’s creative process – it’s no substitute for the completed version. The inclusion of the familiar “Slip Slidin’” into Complete Albums could have made the box definitive, one-stop shopping for the artist’s solo catalogue. Instead, the song remains absent. (Greatest Hits, Etc. also has an exclusive live version with strings of “American Tune” and a shorter edit of “Mother and Child Reunion,” both of which remain orphaned. This box might have been a nice place to reintroduce the compilation to the catalogue.)
You can hear the original “Slip Slidin’ Away,” however, on the single-disc Over the Bridge of Time. The compilation of previously released material, produced by Berkowitz and remastered by Anesini, is as good as any 20-track distillation of a long, storied career could be. Numerous favorites are missing (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Kodachrome,” “Graceland,” to name a few) but that’s the nature of the beast. The retrospective does touch on many of the high points (“America,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “American Tune,” “Still Crazy After All These Years”) and introduces “Love and Hard Times” – doubtless a future Simon standard – to a Simon anthology. Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland are the only solo LPs represented by more than one song; Songs from the Capeman is overlooked entirely. Jesse Kornbluth supplies new liner notes to this well-curated disc aimed at the casual fan – and yes, lyrics are reprinted here for all 20 tracks.
Considering Paul Simon’s Complete Albums Collection as a whole is a staggering prospect. So many of these songs and albums have become part of the national consciousness over the course of six (yes, six!) decades from the 1960s to the 2010s, and their beauty, elegance, humor, wit, sophistication and joy are as potent and provocative as ever. As everything in this box has been previously issued, collectors who already own the 2004 iteration and Simon’s subsequent releases might be justified in passing on an upgrade. But for a new generation of fans, there could hardly be a better introduction to one of the most essential bodies of work in the whole of popular music. These truly American tunes have broken through the sound of silence to create a universally shared soundtrack.
Both releases can be ordered at the links below: