While it has probably been very easy for people of all generations since the 60’s to swallow Paul Simon‘s smooth, breezy vocals and folksy-yet-intellectual, witty-but-street-smart New-York-City-boy lyrics right down to the gut without chewing, it’s also true that if you don’t chew your food, or if you eat too fast, you might hurt yourself or pass over something totally delicious. I had only recently realized that I had missed the second course to the feast well after coffee and cake had been served. Many will agree that Simon & Garfunkel was the light and instantly gratifying first course, making Simon’s Graceland his main course in all of its rich, complexity of flavors, colorful presentation, and percussive garnishes.
Now, perhaps it is just my perspective that tells me this, but it seems like many of my generation (born in the 80’s or 90’s) might be just as oblivious as I was that this scrumptious little second dish on Paul Simon’s menu had been served up a mere two years after his curly-haired sous chef finally walked out of his kitchen for good. Based on the discussions I have shared with avid music fans around my age, it seems very possible that someone could be well-versed in all of the charmingly dated Simon and Garfunkel classics from the 60’s and adore Graceland for its rich worldly flair with a white-boy hop, yet have no awareness that the master chef was cooking with full heat 14 years before Graceland even had the chance to steal the show.
Okay, enough with the cooking analogy. To call Paul Simon’s 1972, self-titled solo record underrated would be silly of me, of course, both because I was born 13 years after it was rated and because it had reached #4 on the U.S. Pop Billboard Charts, eventually going Platinum in 1986. Rather, it seems fairer of me to suggest that this record somehow deserves far more attention than it currently receives from avid pop music listeners of recent generations, especially those who currently listen to Paul Simon but are unaware of his self-titled effort’s lasting power. My major issue is this: This record is pretty much perfect and no one ever told me.
The reggae-inspired opening track, “Mother And Child Reunion”, hits almost immediately with hearty female vocals, organ, and rounded-out guitar lines. While this song is lyrically simple and its contour undeniably “borrowed”, it’s one of the best known songs from the record, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the rest of the album comes from a completely different world. After this first song, the album is unquestionably a folk record. With many of the songs stripped down to very bare arrangements, some featuring just guitar and vocals, Simon offers a side that appeared to be previously obscured by the lyrical and vocal fluff of Simon & Garfunkel’s dual craftsmanship. The sparse production here is a perfect lens through which Simon’s stories become magnified and effortlessly dictated.
On the second track, “Duncan”, an eerie, weary-traveler folk song, Simon’s opening line is a perfect example of his lyrics at their best. They’re humorous and simply worded, but tinged with implicit emotions as a picture is drawn: “Couple in the next room bound to win a prize/they’ve been going at it all night long and I’m trying to get some sleep/But these motel walls are cheap/Lincoln Duncan is my name, and here’s my song.” Since the album uses instrumentation sparingly, the moments where wind and horn melodies occur have a special urgency to them, an abrupt entrance into the song that gets under one’s skin more effectively than a constant drip ever could. On “Duncan”, this instrumentation arrives and immediately recalls the spooky, sad, flute-like sounds on Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”. As a matter of fact, the same group of Andean musicians who performed on “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” also performed here.
One of the best aspects of Paul Simon is its interesting juxtaposition of simple, working-class American charm, and complex, jazzy chord changes from well-trained, crafty instrumentalists. Simon’s extremely dexterous acoustic guitar playing, however, fully shines with perfect urgency and complex emotion on “Peace Like A River”, “Armistice Day”, and “Everything Put Together Falls Apart”, with the rattle and rumble of certain notes giving you the feeling that he’s sitting down at your kitchen table, playing it right there for you while you finish your orange juice. For fans of today’s folk resurgence, more specifically M. Ward (especially his album End Of Amnesia), these songs are a perfect connection to previous times. There’s a sense, at least in the context of today’s folk-pop (from the intellectual and hyper-poetic musings of Bright Eyes to the shameless “I love drinking, and also you” banjo ballads of The Avett Brothers), that Simon meticulously struck that perfect lyrical balance between speaking from the brain and speaking from the heart. On “Run That Body Down”, Simon’s lyrical entrance is almost too easy: “Went to my doctor yesterday.” But then, whether you’re already judging him or not, you’re eager to know what the problem is, yet he keeps you waiting a whole 15 seconds to let you know that “she said I seem to be OK.” The album is filled with these wonderfully crafted moments of timing.
A discussion of this album would be incomplete without noting its most upbeat and arguably most-beloved track, “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. It was perfect in 1972 and still is today. “Papa Hobo”, a relatively unfolky tune, but rather an ironic and brilliant ode to Detroit, contains my favorite moment of the entire record. While horns churn out low notes triumphantly in the background, Simon intones that he’s been busy working: “Sweep up, I been sweeping up the tips I’ve made/I been living on Gatorade, planning my getaway,” he bemoans. This lyric alone, by first giving a vivid close-up of a lower middle-class worker sadly counting his incredibly vital tip money, and then by unhiply brand-name dropping the word “Gatorade” shows us better than anything else on the record who Paul Simon was at the time: an artist unafraid to do what he wants. If the lyrics are unpoetical, he sings them poetically. If the story is mundane, he tells it candidly.
Towards the end of the record, the pulsating and edgy “Paranoia Blues” displays a rare side to Simon’s generally cool and sweet voice when he lets a good scruffy growl enter his throat while belting out the chorus: “There’s only one thing I need to know, whose side are you on?” What also makes this song special is its verse about a stolen chow fun, but I think I’ve probably already said enough about the brilliantly shameless lyrics.
While Vampire Weekend deservedly brings people back to Paul Simon’s Graceland era with their Afro-beat meets New-York-prep approach, I am hoping more young indie music lovers dig further into Simon’s solo catalog and celebrate his self-titled release’s ability to mesh intelligence with street-talk, musical ability with musical rawness, and poetry with a sense of humor. With its pure vocals, accessible sentiment, flood of acoustic guitar textures, and often funny, biographical lyrics, there is no reason why Paul Simon shouldn’t resonate strongly with fans of today’s intellectual indie-folk. Folk music remains a vibrant and ever-growing force among the indie artist community today, just as it was back in 1972. There was much to talk about back then, and artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the members of the then recently-dissolved Beatles were all fussing about it. I have my work cut out for me now: I must get my hands on some more of Paul Simon’s post-Simon and Garfunkel solo work. As for everyone else, the beginning is never a bad place to start. – Jesse Kristin
Jesse Kristin plays drums for the Washington, D.C.-based band, Jukebox the Ghost, who recently put out its sophomore album, Everything Under the Sun.