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Feature Review: Paul Simon, Songwriter

Paul Simon
[Legacy (2011)]

Songwriter is the tenth compilation album released of Paul Simon’s work since his split with Garfunkel, and the 12th if you count two box sets. Why he is releasing another compilation, considering that he also released a new album in April of this year? Although the included tracks are not new, their provenance is, and context makes this album an important composition in itself.

The two-disk set comes with a booklet with an introduction by artist Chuck Close that includes all the lyrics and vital statistics of the particular cuts for the included songs. There’s not much that has been left unsaid about Paul Simon over the course of his career, either as a performer or songwriter, but Close’s words in the opening lines of the pamphlet accompanying this two CD set may be the most on point regarding his importance to our culture:

If the experiences of people like me, who grew up in the 40’s, 50’s, and ‘60’s, had been the subject of a movie, Paul Simon would have written the soundtrack of our lives.

Few could deny that many of Simon’s lyrics have found their way into our language and serve as the descriptors of our common experiences. Simon isn’t up in your face with an idea necessarily; he tosses out a bit of bait with captivating rhythms, a sweet lead in, or a catchy melody, and often all three. There’s a hook in the opening that seems to require your attention to the lyrics. The material is not neutral background music: it grabs your attention … just not by the lapels. It’s more like Simon’s sharing an observation or a thought, one that may or may have already occurred to you, and the song he wraps it in becomes a part of that thought forever afterward. It’s a shared conspiracy.

On this compilation, Simon shares only enough of the familiar chart material from each period of his song writing to lay the groundwork, painting a cohesive picture of Paul Simon as a songwriter and innovator without the clutter of a box. You can take it all in at one sitting. And, like his songs, the compilation suggests more than it actually says. It reveals to anyone not already aware how much Paul Simon has contributed to the period of America’s coming of age and our ongoing process of cultural re-invention to meet a changing smaller world.

It’s as much about the culture that spawned Paul Simon as it is about his influence on the generation he grew up with. It’s what’s right about that culture, despite its dirty underwear, and maybe in recognition of it, that makes it worthwhile. It may have been entitled “Paul Simon, American” just as well. Certainly his work has an international flavor but that inclusiveness is exactly the thing that should be America’s greatest attribute, the thing we should be nurturing to the fullest, rather than our prejudices and exporting. It’s the very thing about our music that makes it so widely listened to in the world.

Paul Simon’s music belongs to the international market as much as it does to the U.S. He’s got the gold and platinum album sales numbers in multiple nations to prove it. His music knows no cultural bounds; it’s a great unifier. (Perhaps we should all take this to heart.) But, despite incorporating a wide range of worldbeat in his compositions, he never lets go of the American roots. An unflinching examination of what that means seems to be part of the message in this compilation.

A live version of “The Sound of Silence,” the oldest of his songs to be included (originally February 1964), opens the album. It’s a bit more pensive and laid back than past releases, suggesting that it’s a lead in to a fresh perspective on his life’s work. But maybe there is a second point in suggesting that we his audience still don’t get it. If we have been listening, then why are we going in the opposite direction his overriding theme suggests? To this end, he follows up with “The Boxer,” and this time when you hear it, from the Live at Central Park recording, you’re certain it’s at least metaphorically autobiographical and pertinent to the second perspective.

Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the only performance on the album that he takes no part in, sets the stage for the rest of the album. It serves a lot of functions here, not the least of which is a hopeful message. Since it was from the eponymous album, the last album before the split with Art Garfunkel, it makes a point of the change in direction that came with that. What follows is more about an artist who is no longer constrained by the usual commercial baggage of having to stick to any particular style for fear of losing his following. This is where the real Paul Simon pulls out all the stops and lets his imagination soar. You know now that this isn’t going to be a just another greatest hits album or a box set; it’s about to take you someplace fresh.

There are 32 songs between the two disks, presented in chronological order by original release date. And they all share one commonality: they are each representative of a different facet of Paul Simon the songwriter. Trying to parse Simon’s work to any single definition or style is no easy task. But this album makes a sound argument that he is, perhaps, the most important songwriter of our age.

—H. Stephen Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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