Paul Simon: Working the Same Piece of Clay, Part I

A perpetual journey of discovery

This is the first part of a two-part story. See Part II here.

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All lyrics by PAUL SIMON

It’s just hard working
The same piece of clay
Day after day
Year after year

From “Stranger to Stranger”

The same piece of clay. Day after day. To a regular person, one without an artist’s instinct or yearning, the challenge of doing anything new with that same piece of clay, day in and day out, would seem insurmountable.

Yet to artists – and this one specifically – the mission is about simply remaining engaged. Not to get derailed, or become disinterested for long. To Simon, however, this seems like a natural inclination; he’s always followed musical ideas to see where they lead. Nor as he ever seemed lacking in musical directions for long, or the courage to try new things. Always he’s experimented with different rhythms, textures, instruments, locales and approaches to this art which has been so impacted by his own work. It’s about forever moving forward. 

And as he said years ago, regardless of what you create, the act of moving forward matters most in terms of honoring the art.

“A brave mistake,” he said, “is more important than a safe success.”

His genius has shone through decades in his passion for discovering new possibilities, new pathways, new promises, in this delicate art of songwriting. Working within this small form, the song, each only mere minutes in length, he discovers new universes.

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. The 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. His most recent album, Stranger To Stranger, is 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.

As Leonard Cohen said, 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.

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.”

In 1992, it seemed amazing that this king of guitar-based songwriting could make such a radical shift. After all, he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on guitar, so that seemed to work. But he jettisonedhis old guitar-voice approach to songwriting 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.

End of Part One. See Part II Here.

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