Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Simon Sez: Keep Listening

One of my warmest early memories is laying in the late afternoon sun, looking through my baseball card collection studying all the important statistics, listening to my sisters practice piano. Often times after the Beethoven, Bartok, or Mendelssohn pieces they would play a Simon and Garfunkel song. I quite enjoyed those tunes, growing up listening to home versions of "Sound of Silence," "Homeward Bound," "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I remember looking at the faces of the two solemn young men on the covers of those piano books and the words and notes inside and was awakened to the possibilities of music and songs. I read the lyrics and they seemed so deep and profound- for the first time I saw that there seemed to be a lot of social injustice going on outside the baseball diamonds.

So I've always had a certain sentimental fondness and admiration for Paul Simon. Here was a short little guy like me, introspective with a lot to say and a limited voice to say it all with (all shoes I wore). In junior high I knew I knew something the others didn't simply because I seemingly understood the lyrics to "Overs," "Cloudy," and "Baby Driver" (having now played them on the piano myself countless times). As misunderstood as I felt somehow the music not only could express my own feelings, it demonstrated others could possibly emphasize.

In high school I discovered Simon's wonderful first solo self titled LP, and was dazzled by the quirky little songs that spoke of freedom, of melancholy, of wanderlust (songs about stolen Chow Fon and Detroit hockey). I was impressed that this new direction in his career sounded so different from the serious folk of his previous work and was in its own way, far more moving. In college his overlooked LP Hearts and Bones spoke volumes to me. The LP pondered many an insightful question- When is something a feeling and when is something a thought and when do the two meet and can they ever intertwine?

The follow-up, Graceland, with its similar themes to Hearts and Bones but much more joyous sound, rejuvenated my heart. It was remarkable that as a pop writer, Simon seemed to be among the few getting better and better. I continued to faithfully buy each new Simon release. I thought Rhythm of the Saints was quite good but the music to the failed Broadway play, The Capeman didn't strike a chord in me. Still I was quite happy to hear that Simon was coming out with a new CD, and looked forward to hearing what he had to say.

That new CD, You're the One, in a word, blows. The music is listless and uninspired. The influence of the African and Brazilian sounds used on his previous musical excursions remains- but the soft light jazz sound of all the songs becomes tedious and irritating. This is nothing but muzak for yuppies, undoubtedly Paul's remaining audience. As a sympathetic listener it was a chore making it all the way through the 11 songs. The only interesting song on the whole disc is "Pigs, Sheep, and Wolves" sort of an update of "At the Zoo." The song is a rant against capital punishment sung in a half slurred rap whine.

What makes the music even more ponderous and pointless are some of the most trite, humdrum and uninspired lyrics of Simon's career. In the past Simon would have found a way to make a song like "Darling Lorraine" with its detail on the arc of a disintegrating relationship ("What- you don't love me anymore?/What- you're walking out the door?/Hey let me tell you/You're not the woman that I wed/You say you're depressed but you're not/You just like to stay in bed") witty and not tedious. Not here. The equally hackneyed "Old" doesn't even seem like the artist is trying very hard anymore. ("When all these numbers tumble into your imagination/Consider that the Lord was there before creation/God is old/We're not old/God is old/He made the mold")

In a recent interview with the LA Times Simon says he is living in a state of marital tranquility. He and wife Edie Brickell recently celebrated the birth of their third child. When asked if he his art suffers when he himself isn't suffering Simon does little to dispel the notion a good artist must be perpetually bothered. "I don't think it matters if you are happy or tortured. What I've observed about the creative process is that periodically I'll make up things, and then I'll have a period where I don't make up things and I start to wonder if I'm finished making up ideas. I'll have no ideas. Then, they'll start coming again and you act on it."It's an insight that also disproves with age comes either wisdom or bitterness (or both).

As a fan of Simon it's nice to hear that he is doing well personally. Professionally You're the One is insipid and flaccid in its suffocating soulless bliss. There surely is plenty left for Simon to say, but what these songs say is sterile and impersonal (or is it too personal?). Sometimes it's OK just to hear a familiar voice, sometimes a bit more effort is needed. If you're not even going to try to matter, why should the rest of us bother to listen? It all sounds like an afterthought product, middle aged noodling. There are those still crazy after all these years, and disregarding the rules of the children's game it is time to move on, permission or not.

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