Graham Reid | | 3 min read
For more than half a century Paul Simon has been articulating the concerns of his generation, as in American Tune in the Watergate era of disillusionment: “I don't know a soul who's not been battered, I don't have a friend who feels at ease”.
Sometimes his lyrics have seemed prescient (“the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls" in Sound of Silence) or encapsulate lives with brevity: The housewife in Slip Slidin' Away saying, “A good day ain't got no rain, a bad day I lie in bed and think of things that might have been”.
His observation “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” was obvious but also astute.
His images can be nailhard and speak about our contemporary world: “The bomb in the baby carriage wired to explode . . . lasers in the jungle” on Boy in the Bubble from the Graceland album
He has also married his lyrics to diverse musical influences drawing from old folk ballads through doo-wop and Everly Brothers-styles rock'n'roll to sounds from South Africa and Latin America.
He has worked with jazz musicians (notably on the One Trick Pony album, the soundtrack to the film he wrote and starred in) and of course Cajun and African musicians on Graceland.
He can also be quite funny, as in the clip for You Can Call Me Al and the clip with Chevy Chase.
But mostly he's a serious guy.
His recording career started in 1964 and his new album Stranger to Stranger – in a cover by Chuck Close – is his 13th studio outing under his own name.
There were some lean years – notably the Nineties when he only released two albums: Rhythm of the Saints which, because it wasn't Graceland II didn't fire the imagination of many, and Songs From The Capeman which was material from his well-intentioned but massive Broadway flop co-written with the poet Derek Walcott.
There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973)
Following the success of his self-titled solo album after the Simon and Garfunkel break-up, Simon gained confidence and extended his interest in music beyond pop, folk and rock.
This one scoops up influences from the Caribbean (Take Me to the Mardi Gras) through to doo-wop/gospel (the Dixie Hummingbirds on She Loves Me Like a Rock) and classical music (Bach on the insightful American Tune).
St Judy's Comet is a lovely, self-referencing lullaby and the melody of Tenderness could have come from the Fourties.
Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
Jammed with hits and radio friendly songs (the title track, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and Gone At Last with Phoebe Snow) it also was reflective (My Little Town, Night Game) and political (Silent Eyes about Israel being in the crosshairs).
As always the musicianship is impeccable (a lot of jazz musicians and Patti Austin) and Simon had something to say about himself and our world.
A companion volume and extension of its excellent predecessor You're The One, here again Simon makes the personal (family, self-doubt, disillusionment) into universal concerns yet manages to be ambivalent, evocative and dryly witty.
His comeback was complete after his mixed fortunes in the Nineties (Rhythm of the Saints and The Capeman).
At 64 he was still pushing himself. For more on this album go here.
So Beautiful or So What (2011)
By this point in his long career many former fans felt they had enough Simon in their lives already.
But they missed this slow-burning cracker which sounded as current as newspaper headlines, wove in stories and questions, and – as on Graceland – his astute lyrics and voice was just part of the musical palette.
Mortality might have been on his mind in places but he really came alive on this one
For more on this album go here.
His debut solo album The Paul Simon Songbook recorded in London contains the seeds of his genius (I Am A Rock, The Sound of Silence etc) and is worthy of attention.
There are also a few compilations (notably last year's Ultimate Collection which included some S&G songs) if you want to cheat.
But Simon's albums are best appreciated in their entirety.