Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #36 - Paul Simon – Paul Simon

Maybe the idea of the “desert island top 5” is outdated, considering we live in an era of instant access to everything. However, one album that really fits this category for me is Paul Simon’s 1972 solo debut. Here, Simon sounds looser than he ever did with Art Garfunkel. It’s as if he was writing these songs for himself, and not to make radio hits. (Although he had those too, with “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”) It’s simultaneously some of his most ambitious and effortless work as a songwriter.
Along with Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel were the sound of the folk revival, political consciousness and the student protest movement. The difference being that Simon and Garfunkel came off as polite grad students, while Dylan, the owner of many personalities, came off as a rogue outlaw poet. (Can you picture Art smoking in Ray Bans and a leather jacket?) Although Simon wrote some of the greatest pop songs ever with Art, today they sound dated, suffering from the era’s overly twee innocence. S&G’s lush strings, church choir harmonies and baroque melodies sound restrained and dainty. “Feeling Groovy” may have been a hip song at the time, but that phrase is now as dated as “winning” became a few months ago. Maybe sensing this, Simon stepped away from the group at the peak of their popularity to take his music in a new direction.
On his self-titled solo debut, Simon and longtime producer Roy Halee do away with S&G’s lush production, giving the songs a spontaneous, loose feel. Recorded in Kingston, Paris and the US, the album shuffles through a wide variety of styles, while never feeling forced or labored over. Upbeat reggae hits like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” balance sparse, introspective songs like “Everything Put Together Falls Apart,” “Armistice Day,” and “Peace Like a River.” It’s an introspective 70’s album, but it’s also a summery, breezy and laidback album.
Simon’s interest in world music continues to develop on his debut. “Duncan” features a contribution from Los Incas, the Peruvian group who also appeared on S&G’s “El Condor Pasa”. French violinist Stephane Grappelli, a frequent Django Rheinhardt collaborator, duets on the gypsy jazz instrumental track “Hobo’s Blues. Simon would later go on to explore New Orleans, Gospel, African and Brazilian musical forms over the course of his solo career, and these two tracks, along with some of the latter S&G songs, are the foundation of his globetrotting sound.
Simon’s voice adds sweetness and humor to even his more sorrowful lyrics, providing a balance of optimism and world-weariness. When he sings “I been sweeping up the tips I’ve made/I been living on Gatorade/Planning my getaway”, in “Papa Hobo,” it’s the story of someone who’s down and out, yet hopeful. Simon has always been a great chronicler of people living on the fringe, and in two of his best songs with S&G, “America” and “The Only Living Boy in New York,” he provided snapshots of one person’s life that millions of people related to on a personal level. Here, the powerful coming of age song “Duncan” shows that Simon is still a master storyteller. It opens with “Couple in the next room/Bound to win a prize/They’ve been going at it all night long/Well, I’m trying to get some sleep/But these motel walls are cheap/Lincoln Duncan is my name/And here’s my song.” Simon’s evocative lyrics draw the listener into the world of his characters, while being universal enough to relate to the listener’s own experiences.
Since first listening to Paul Simon’s solo debut years ago, it’s been one of my all time “desert island top 5” albums. The songs are heartfelt and wise, without preaching or being heavy handed. It has the relaxed feel of a friend telling stories that are hopeful, joyous, introspective, sometimes sorrowful, but with a sense of humor. For nearly fifty years, Paul Simon has been an outstanding chronicler of the human experience, expressed creatively with music drawing from all over the world. This is the album where he stepped out on his own and began that journey.

Justin Jerolmon

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