Paul Simon’s Journey of Discovery

Photo by Mark Seliger

All lyrics by PAUL SIMON

It’s just hard working
The same piece of clay
Day after day
Year after year
Certain melodies tear your heart apart
Reconstruction is a lonesome art

From “Stranger to Stranger”

The same piece of clay. In this artist’s hands, that clay is composed of two elements– language and music. Yet within these fundamental forms, he’s made magic for decades.

A song, especially compared to sprawling works like movies and novels, is a small, limited form. But within these limitations, great songwriters have discovered unlimited possibilities. And of all the legendary songwriters of his generation, and those who came in their formidable wake, Paul Simon’s always been remarkably ingenious at discovering these new possibilities. The man has gone to great lengths– artistic, geographic and more– never to repeat himself.

Back in 1970, for example, after having written all the songs on Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of the most popular and beloved albums of all time, he faced the quandary of how to follow that. His famous partnership with Art Garfunkel had come to another ending, and Simon was at the crossroads. So what did he do?  He went to Jamaica where he recorded the ska/reggae tracks which became “Mother and Child Reunion.” Lightyears removed from “Bridge” and yet mysterious and compelling and great in a whole other way, it was a clear sign that this songwriter had just started. This self-declared “poet and a one-man band” cased out early on the unchained potential of bridging separate worlds of music to reach new places with song.

It’s been a remarkable ride ever since. Now comes Stranger To Stranger, a poignantly charged song cycle reflecting on the opposing dynamics of modern times.  From the class divisions that result in millions of Americans living on the streets, to the timeless love that hold us together, he shows us all sides of our current human drama. But with songs for the ages.

Most songwriters, not unlike matadors, do their finest and most definitive work in their early years. Simon, though, has matched and surpassed the greatness of his first work several times. Though revisionists try to paint his career as a series of disconnected stages from which he’s had assorted comebacks, in fact it’s been an extended, unbroken arc of song sustained over decades. He’s the train which never stops for long, on journeys close and far-flung, long after others have derailed or crashed altogether.

Rather than rely for long on tried or true methods, even those which have led to some of the most beautiful and memorable songs of our time, he’s continually found new avenues down which he journeys that keep him interested and inspired.  He is, as he said a few years back, more excited by what he discovers than what he invents, and this journey of discovery endures.

But it’s a journey informed by decades of deep immersion in all aspects of song craft. These discoveries are shaped by a songwriting spirit in love with rhyme and meter, as well as the use of conversational, modern language. It’s at that juncture where his songs lyrically live, fusing the colloquial with enriched language. He does it so smoothly, words flowing with organic grace, that the occasional use of a complex interlocking rhyme scheme emerges so musically, so in the groove, that it doesn’t come off as contrived. It simply rings like a pure bell-tone, like something so right:

They say all roads lead to a river
Then one day the river comes up to your door
How will the builder of bridges deliver
Us all to the faraway shore?

From “The Insomniac’s Lullaby.”

But it’s always been about the marriage – the merger if you will – of words and music. Always the delicate balance is at play. These words are charged precisely because they are injected with the fire of pure music. The changes, the grooves, the melodies that emerge, all coalesce to make a bed for the lyrics. These are not words imposed onto a track. These are words discovered in the heart of the track itself, in the essential play of melody and harmony and rhythm.

The result is exultant. More than anything, what emerges here most prominently is energy. There is nothing uncharged here or indifferent, nothing listless. The artist is as plugged into the electric current of song than ever: the sonics, the chords, the lyrics, the instrumentation, the vocal delivery – all of it speaks to a profusion of joyful, creative vigor. This is a man in his element. Unlike celebrated peers who bemoan both the songwriting and recording process, Simon seems as excited – and interested – in both as ever. Sure, he’d be the first to say that songwriting is never easy, and that over the years it has slowed down considerably.  But he’d also say he loves recording and the challenge of translating songs into records, and of discovering arrangements and instrumentation as inventive as the songwriting.

On his previous album, So Beautiful Or So What, he embraced sampling in a big way, folding in found elements from old recordings, such as fire & brimstone sermonizing and Sonny Terry harmonica exhortations. As opposed to traditionalists, for whom digital recording is anathema, Simon’s always keen to use any new tool he can, and bring it to his piece of clay. This time around he’s embarked on another musical expedition –one created in the past but with limitless modern musical applications –into the realm of micro-tonal music, as realized on instruments invented by Harry Partch.

It all started with what became the album’s final song, a Simon gem of whimsy, human weakness and wisdom, “Insomniac’s Lullaby.” It’s a gentle waltz-time ballad that starts with a prayer to the Master Poet:

Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night
Side by side with the moon
With its desolate eyes
Miles from the sunrise
The darkness inviting a tune
The Insomniac’s Lullaby…

From “The Insomniac’s Lullaby”


In unusually extensive liner notes for this album, Simon explains that Partch heard 43 tones in an octave – as opposed to the twelve tones we have on the piano or guitar in Western music – and to play these micro-tones, Partch invented his own orchestra of instruments, each with exotic names such as Cloud Chamber Bowls, Sonic Canons, Marimba Eroica, Kithara and Chromelodeon. Their music entranced Simon, who has always admitted to being captured in life not only by song but by sound. It was the sound of doo-wop groups, for example, that led him to harmony singing. It was the sound of African street music – that fusion of electric guitars and accordion and vocals, reminiscent of doo-wop – that led him to Graceland and beyond.
Now this, a love of the notes between the notes. Another instance of discovering the unlimited where others find only limits. Partch’s music, Simon wrote, “evokes an aural response that goes beyond the ear’s perception of `out of tune’ and into a strange, often eerily beautiful, landscape of sound.”  That landscape is laid lovingly throughout the album, bringing beautifully understated and haunting textures to these tracks, multi-chromatic waves and washes of sound that sweep and creep wondrously through the songs. Although the concept of micro-tonal music injected into Simon songs might seem unmoored and chaotic, in actuality it’s deeply affecting, as mysterious and yet elegant as a Simon lyric. Rather than distract, these alien sounds become the ideal ingredient to underscore the beauty and new ground broken in these songs.

And as always, it’s all about the songs. Regardless of the instrumental attire of any Simon album, they are forever unified by that dynamic inherent in all his work: deeply developed, committed songwriting. Within a percussive brew both haunting and intoxicating come poignant melodics, and, as always, the unexpected Simon words, fleshing out songs which are simple and complex at the same time, and resound with humor and grace.

Years ago his friend Phoebe Snow called his song “Something So Right” the “ultimate love song.” It wasn’t hyperbole; to this day few songs have touched that vulnerable inability to fathom a love so perfect.  Until his song “Hearts and Bones,” which lifted the love song up into a new realm.

But now comes a new essential love song, the title song, “Stranger To Stranger,” which weds one of the most haunting and elegant melodies to words of sweet poignancy. It’s based lyrically on a musing, wondering what would happen if he and Edie, his wife of many years, were to meet again as strangers, for the first time. He likens their union to that which lives deep in the soul of every songwriter, the marriage of words and music. Long ago he was the one who spoke of the “crucial balance” at the heart of every song, the merging of music and words. Now this:

Words and melodies
Easy harmony
Old-time remedies

From “Stranger To Stranger”

It’s a long melody, and a complex one, requiring several listenings to process. But it’s well worth the time it takes to fully absorb, as it’s one of the most beautiful melodies this master melodist has yet composed.  A song of great grace and also whimsy, it reveals a songwriter completely in control of all the elements, tenderly folding colloquial candor in with words enriched and devotional, wed to a melody of deep adoration:

I cannot be held accountable for the things
I so or say
I’m just jittery
I’m just jittery
It’s just a way of dealing with my joy.

From “Stranger To Stranger.”

When I interviewed him back in 1992, I was rather awestruck that this king of guitar-based songwriting could make such a radical shift, jettisoning his old method of writing songs with guitar and voice to write instead to a track. It’s how he reached Graceland, and so many of the songs which have come since.  Asked if this approach –writing to a track – wasn’t an especially hard way to write a song, he said, “Sure. But there is no easy way. It’s all hard.”

That admission spoke volumes then, as it still does, about the audacious ambition of this artist. The tireless devotion to bringing songs – and the records of songs – to a new place. Randy Newman said, “Simon’s a tough guy. You can hear it. I mean, he goes to Africa!”

After Graceland, Simon and Roy Halee created The Rhythm of the Saints, another rhythmic journey that resulted in remarkable songs, by going to Brazil and elsewhere to capture the initial grooves. But after that album, Simon seems to have realized he no longer needed to travel the world to get great tracks. And so he started cooking them up – with a great diversity of music and musicians – at home.

On this one, entranced by the rhythms of flamenco dancing, “particularly hand-clapping and dancing heels on a wood floor,” he brought a Boston flamenco troupe to New York – “two clappers, one dancer, a cahon player, and Jamey Haddad on frame drum” – and created the rhythmic bed for four of these songs, leading him to new material both funny and dark, and often both in the same song, including “The Riverbank,” “The Werewolf,” “Wristband” and “Stranger to Stranger.”

His appetite for new sounds is ravenous. Always musically curious in the world, forever hungry for new sounds, he looks forwards as well as back for new input. In Milan on tour he met the Italian electronic dance music composer Clap! Clap! – aka Digi G’Alessio –  and invited him to contribute electric textures and grooves to three tracks here, all sent from his home studio in Sardinia.

Simon once spoke about starting a lyric with some simplicity. He motioned with his hands the shape of a baseball diamond, starting small at the apex and branching ever outwards. Because there’s such a multitude of information barraging the listener at one time as a record begins, he reasoned, it’s wise to open with simple terms – jokes even – before swimming into deeper waters. “You Can Call Me Al” exemplified this approach, opening with the rhythm and phrasing of an old joke:

A man walks down the street
He says why I am soft in the middle
Why am I soft in the middle
When the rest of my life is so hard?

It’s a technique he puts to great use here, as in the darkly funny starting song, “The Werewolf,” which opens on a Milwaukee man who “led a fairly decent life/Made a fairly decent living/Had a fairly decent wife,” before adding, almost off-handedly, that his wife “killed him—sushi knife…” This is almost Tom Lehrer territory, that delightfully dark melding of love and homicide, yet set to a remarkable track of emergent urgency.

He does it again on “Wristband,” which starts essentially as a joke before deepening into a reflection of American privilege, the widening gulf between the classes. It’s a subject which surfaces repeatedly through these songs, the vastness of distance between those with everything and those with nothing at all. Perpetual homelessness – and one homeless man in particular – infiltrate all these songs.

“Wristband” starts with the rock star’s realization that he got locked out of the stage door at his concert venue, and needs a wrist-band to get back in. It’s the rare instance of the luminary being treated like riff-raff, and thus facing the reality of that world which keeps many from entering.

But being Simon, he quickly expands the perspective, showing the ultimate result of festering class wars, and the reality of those kids who can never have a wrist band or any attendant concession. Remarkably rhymed and phrased into short lines of simplicity, he shows the effect of such divisive forces always at play:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband
And if you don’t have a wristband
Then you can’t get through the door
No, you can’t get through the door
No, you can’t get through the door

From “Wristband.”
Remarkably, it’s a song all based all on one chord. This genius of chord progressions cooked up this  intoxicating groove all over one chord – the I chord – (E flat)- proving something James Brown always knew – that with a soulful groove, you don’t need more than one chord. But within these limitations – again the essence of song – there is no limit to what can be done, and he brings a melody soulful and jazzy to deliver the lyric with both humor and focus.
It’s something John Fogerty has done a lot in songs – the use of so few chords that the change to any one is momentous. “The Werewolf” does this  – it grooves on a I chord – D major –  for such a long time, that when we’re finally delivered to the IV chord, the first real chord change of the song, the effect is enthralling.  Just when many of us had finally mastered the complex chords of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” here comes its songwriter to teach us the power of simplicity.

The fact is most obits are mixed reviews
Life is a lottery a lot of people lose
And the winners, the grinners
With money-colored eyes
Eat all the nuggets
Then they order extra fries

The werewolf is coming

From “The Werewolf”

Although this quintessential New Yorker has famously moved out of the city to raise his kids in the bucolic calm of Connecticut, the mayhem of modern day Manhattan is always inside him, and has never been more authentically projected than “In A Parade.” To a dizzying soundtrack of urban mayhem, we meet the character who appears in two songs here, a homeless man who tells Simon that “nobody talks to me much.” A street angel.
There is an interesting sequence – from “Street Angel” – all raucous urban rhythms – to the mesmerizing love-injected “Stranger To Stranger” – and then back to the riotous groove of “Street Angel” for the remarkable “In A Parade.” It’s as if he stepped away from the crazy crowd for a few minutes to look inward and reflect on his beloved Edie, before returning to the streets.

I can’t talk now, I’m in a parade.

From “In A Parade”

What better way of summing up the incessant cacophony of our new digital everyday than this? Answering the phone in mid-parade to explain why you can’t talk. With such economy of language – one sentence –  he says so much about where we find ourselves. The human parade, the endless momentum through the streets of Manhattan, the streets of America. The answering of a phone to explain why you can’t answer.  The prevalent modern dynamic of being both inside and outside life at the same time.

The first appearance of the street angel is in “Street Angel,” and he’s a visionary speaking in parables. That eternal question lingers, resounding through fables of saints and sages of old, is this an angel or a madman? Divine or earthly? He speaks of trying to get back home, and it sounds like he’s aiming towards heaven. But by the next song, “Parade,” he’s seen from the outside again, and though self-identified as divine, is defined as a madman. In a melodic and mesmeric mantra of the streets, Simon repeats a litany that sums up this modern human dilemma in four lines:

Diagnosis:  Schizophrenic
Prognosis:  Guarded
Medication:  Seroquel
Occupation:  Street Angel

Even the use of the word Seroquel, a drug with a name like an ancient jewel, is a signature of Simon, forever finding linguistic splendor in unexpected places. As he has since the start, writing of finding the words of the prophets on tenement halls, he’s expanded the lyrical vocabulary of popular song, perpetually pushing the boundaries of what songs can contain.

Of the eleven tracks here, two are instrumentals: “The Clock” and “In the Garden of Edie,” delicate guitar and sound paintings both created originally for John Patrick Shanley’s play Prodigal Son, which had a limited run at New York City Center in February 2016.

Simon delivers his first biographically-inspired song since “Rene and Georgette Magritte.” This time it’s “Cool Papa Bell,” based on the legendary baseball star of the Negro Leagues. “Legend has it the Bell could turn off a light switch,” Simon wrote, “and be in bed before the light went out. He once bunted a triple. A friend gave me a painting of Cool Papa Bell, and somehow he found his way into a song.” That song is essential Simon, combining his great fidelity for our mythic American pastime with the percussive beauty of this man’s name, and love for the game.

He’s reunited here with the legendary Roy Halee, the man who engineered/produced many of his masterpieces, from Simon and Garfunkel classics such as Bridge Over Troubled Water and Bookends to solo Simon landmarks such as Graceland. It was Roy who went with Paul to Africa to record the tracks for Graceland. Paul not only credits him here as co-producer, he writes: “Produced by Paul Simon and his old partner Roy Halee.” Andy Smith, who has worked with Simon for years, is the engineer.

The cover of the album is a close-up of a 2010 portrait of Simon by the legendary Chuck Close. Though mostly paralyzed by catastrophic spinal artery collapse since 1988, Close has exemplified the triumph of the artist over limits. Robbed of his ability to use his hands, he mastered a technique of affixing brushes to his wrists to create his immense, intricate grid-like portraits. It’s a lesson in artistic determination connected with Simon’s unflagging resolve, always to work within, and ultimately transcend, any limits.

Except for Graceland, Simon rarely has written liner notes for his albums. (Garfunkel famously wrote the liners for Sounds of Silence). But for this we get fairly extensive notes detailing the often rhythmic and sonic origins of these songs. Relating beautifully the dry-spell from which he emerged, he offers a great lesson to all songwriters: That even having been to the summit of the songwriting mountain so many times, he’s as anxious and hollow as any songwriter  with a blank page, unsure if ever he will again ascend:

“This album began, as mine often do, in a season of emotional winter: barren landscape, no ideas, anxiety about no ideas, lethargy leading to increased caffeine consumption—in short, a not-atypical basket of writer’s feelings, when the urge to create is stirring, but nothing comes of it.”

But the dry spell got broken, as they often do, by meagre musical seeds from which whole songs blossomed, hurling the songwriter into the song without a moment for gratitude : “All of this changes,” he wrote, “without a `Thank you, Lord’ or `Phew, glad that’s over’—when a few chords coalesce, or a rhythmic idea snaps into play.”
True, the songwriter might be too deep in the river to be thankful for the ride. But for those of us who have had our lives enriched, defined and expanded by the songs and records from this one man, we remain grateful. In a world where it seems the value of everything is diminished or fading, the songs of Simon continue to flourish and amaze. And in times like these, when the divisions between people are more severe than ever, few things matter more than the timeless, unlimited power of song.