Monday, April 18, 2011

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What

I've been wondering what it would take to cause me to post here. Turns out, it was a simple request to share my impressions of a new piece of music. That's a request I rarely decline. 
Simon's new disc dropped on Tuesday; he's had a string of kind of "meh" recordings following his really awful production for stage (The Capeman) in the mid-1990's. The pre-release hype for SBoSW was impressive: things like "...his best since Graceland...". Well, if you're talking to me, that's one hell of an assertion. 

I wouldn't ever really commit to the notion that any recording could be the best in the whole world so I'm not saying that exactly. Primarily because I'd have to listen to every bit of recorded music to have any credibility and beyond having the time to do that, some music is just shit and I won't listen to it. And who am I to tell anyone what has the most merit? Art is all about the personal experience of an offering so by definition a given piece of art will be different for each person who takes it in (caveat: not all music is artistic). BUT for my money, time and taste there are two albums that run neck and neck for favorite (and I rarely even commit to personal favorites when it comes to music): Carol King's Tapestry and Paul Simon's Graceland.  So that's one thing to be considered. Another is that Simon's follow-up to Graceland was another exceptional album: Rhythm of the Saints. Finally, no one should ever forget that IMO, the funniest music video ever is You Can Call Me Al --- and that tune came to us from Graceland. So, for me, from 1986 to 1990, Paul Simon was just on fire.  Could this new disc measure up to that level?  I'm a little skeptical.

So in determining whether or not this latest disc is Mr. Simon's best since Graceland (or even if its just good) I had to, at long last, try to sum up why Rhythm of the Saints was never an album that I could listen to over and over and over as I have (and do) Graceland. I listened to it today for the first time in maybe 10 years. I was pleasantly reminded that there are some excellent songs there, a couple which are really beautiful.  

Paul Simon makes some remarks in the "making of..." DVD that accompanies SBoSW about whether or not the pop/rock album remains a viable art form. A very good question, too, because we don't find much of it in popular music. Jazz still finds value in albums.  Those often come together by some theme: the echoes/repetition of rhythmic patterns, similar key or time progressions or extended efforts to capture an experience in sound, like Brad Mehldau's Highway Rider. 

Graceland hung together via the inclusion of several different forms of "world music" the likes of which had never been taken on at such a large scale, and similarity of a few lyrical themes. It's a freaking GREAT album. Rhythm of the Saints took the same approach and the music was good, interesting, fresh. But you know what?  I think there was too much thematic similarity in both the music and the lyrics. And I'm sorry to say it but I think the music overpowered the vocals a good bit. It's almost as though Paul Simon and his producers forgot that his fans love his gift of lyrics, we love his voice singing them. I love his insight into the human condition, the foibles of individuals and nations. And those things were easily missed on RotS (unfortunate initials).  

So: is the new disc better than RotS, not quite so good as Graceland?  You know what? I do think so!  How great is that?  It's not as overtly exotic as either of them but it sounds fresh in its cross-cultural infusions, its harmonies and instrumentation.   

How does it stand up on its own, separate from other Simon efforts? I've only listened through 3 times but it seems there are provocative social ideas and some love-your-life-as-it-is kind of songs that we've come to look to Paul Simon for. Spesh K, I hope I've told you enough about how I sized the album up and what I think of it as part of Simon's catalogue. I think It's the best thing he's done since Graceland and that's one hell of an assertion!


Special K said...

AWESOME! I'm totally going to buy it - tonight! I Looooooove Graceland.

Stephen said...

Paul is sublime....I couldn't agree more.

Alex21 said...

Such organic style is pretty attractive! I like "live" sounds in music, and this is very qualitative work. I've searched for some more tracks(on, it is really cool!

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