When they say that the new released boxed set highlighting the work of Paul Simon is The Complete Albums Collection by Paul Simon, they’re not kidding. 15 discs of material are included, including all his studio albums following the separation of Simon and Garfunkel, two live sets, and The Paul Simon Song Book, an interesting album from 1965 that features Paul on solo versions of “I Am A Rock, “The Sound Of Silence,” and other songs that he would go on to record with Artie.
There are also bonus tracks and outtakes included with most of the discs, excellent liner notes, and detailed credits, which, considering how Simon’s music has benefited from the contributions of instrumentalists, is an essential inclusion. Maybe you’ve got some of these albums in your collection already, but buying this all-inclusive box set allows you to trace Simon’s adventurous solo work. That work helped redefine what it meant to be a singer-songwriter because of his insistence that the ingenuity of the music be given just as much importance as the profundity of the lyrics.
That was evident right from his excellent self-titled solo debut in 1972. The lyrics to songs like “Mother And Child Reunion” and “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” are fun and nimble, but ultimately subordinate to the smooth reggae of the former and the unstoppable combination of acoustic guitar rhythms and exotic percussion on the latter. Simon saved the more confessional stuff for killer album cuts like “Peace Like A River” and “Run That Body Down.” It was a pattern he’d repeat often throughout his career.
1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon toned down the island rhythms in favor of American tunes, including, you guessed it, “American Tune,” which captured an entire nation’s restlessness in a personal tale. “Something So Right” played the role of redemptive love song, while the gospel uplift of “Loves Me Like A Rock” showed that Simon’s bag of tricks was practically bottomless. Two years later, he peaked again with Still Crazy After All These Years. The title track, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” and “My Little Town,” a stirring reunion with Garfunkel, were all sure shots; album cuts like “I Do It For Your Love” and “Silent Eyes” were captivatingly moody.
Like many of his contemporaries, Simon flailed in the early 80’s. Maybe he was stretched too thin trying to make the movie of the same name, but the songs from 1980’s One-Trick Pony were lacking the usual zest. At least “Late In The Evening” showed he still could turn out a killer hit single. 1983’s Hearts And Bones is the most underrated album in the man’s canon. Its subtleties were out of place in the MTV era, but the title track is achingly accurate in detailing a rollercoaster relationship, “The Late Great Johnny Ace” is one of the best tributes to John Lennon, and “Rene And George Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is pure magic.
Simon’s chance encounter with a cassette tape of the South African group The Boyoyo Boys started the journey that ended in 1986’s Graceland. The album has been praised to the rafters and rightfully so. Simon did his job proving the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate styles of music so well that the New Orleans zydeco of “That Was Your Mother” fits seamlessly with the South African sounds. And the title track is one off his greatest achievements.
It was only natural that Simon would pursue World Music collaborations even further following that success, but the next two albums produced diminishing returns. 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints pushed percussion even further to the fore than did Graceland, and though the title track showed the potential of that approach, Simon too often seemed lost within the arrangements. That problem is exacerbated by increasingly ponderous lyrics on 2000’s You’re The One, the studio follow-up. Simon used the long span between those two releases to work on the musical The Capeman; the show’s music, found on 1997’s Songs From The Capeman, is a melodic blend of doo-wop and Latin rhythms.
With the help of sonic wizard Brian Eno, he found a fruitful new direction on 2006’s Surprise. The artificial textures play beautifully off heartfelt songs like “Another Galaxy” or “I Don’t Believe.” Yet even that triumph pales compared to 2011’s revelatory So Beautiful Or So What. Simon goes back to the beginning by putting the tune front and center and adding subtle accents from there. “The Afterlife” and “Questions For The Angels” showcase his winningly wry sense of humor, while “Rewrite” and “Love And Hard Times” are among his most moving performances.
With an album like that as his most recent, Simon has us all looking forward to the next one. In the meantime, looking back at The Complete Albums Collection is about as enriching an experience you can have.