Paul Simon has said in an interview that he only feels the need to write songs occasionally, and that when he does he uses most of the material he composes. I’m really not sure what to make of this statement. I accept it; there’s no reason he’d lie. But there’s such a vast distance between his best material and his next level down.
His best songs from the Simon and Garfunkel period include Sounds of silence, I am a rock, Homeward bound, The dangling conversation, America, Mrs Robinson, Bridge over troubled waters, Frank Lloyd Wright, and The boxer. These are genuine art songs; Simon wrote the highest-brow music of the period with elements of protest and alienation as well as love and romance and sharply observed details. Other only slightly lesser songs such as The only living boy in New York, Big bright green pleasure machine, We’ve got a groovy thing going and a couple of others are also very fine. Cecilia is irritatingly catchy, while Parsley sage rosemary and thyme and El Condor Pasa are essentially derived from other sources so he really only gets part credits for them.
But so much of the rest is clearly just filler.
Then came the solo period and songs like American Tune, St Judy’s Comet and Duncan. Songs like Me and Julio down in the schoolyard, Mother and child reunion, and You can call me Al, seemed to promise a return to the old melodic prowess of the past but actually didn’t quite deliver the long sinuous lines. Then he turned his hand to simpler material but with equal success in Still crazy after all these years, 50 ways to leave your lover, My little town, and Slip sliding away; all fine stuff.
Then came Graceland. This was an utter departure for Simon, inspired by a visit to South Africa, and it shows once again that these top artists usually have more than one string to their bow. The ‘hook’ is that infectious little ‘one-two-three, one-two-three, (pause) One!-two-three’ instrumental riff that punctuates many of the lines against a jogging little rhythm. The performance is a lot looser than his usual pristine productions also, and this is wonderful; sometimes the antiseptic quality of his sound can be off-putting. The lyrics are honest and brilliant, personal and topical (especially the mention of the Civil War), highly original in casting the dead Elvis’s home as a place of pilgrimage, and exquisitely colourful, among his absolute best, right up there with Dangling conversation yet more varied and personal. Dark lyrics against a light and boppy musical background – wonderful! He is on a visit to see a former partner, presumably the mother of his travelling companion, his ‘nine-year-old child by his first marriage,’ who ‘comes back to tell me she’s gone’ and thereafter is a ‘ghost with empty sockets.’ So they head on down to Graceland where ‘poor boys and pilgrims with families’ all will be well-received.
After the initial dramas in the lyrics the story progresses to the ‘girl in New York City’ who has some comforting words of wisdom. This song is as good as it gets: personal and with different levels and associations, and musically substantive. There’s even a long run-in, a verse-length introduction played instrumentally at the beginning. This is all very unlike the old Paul Simon.
And perhaps the most curious thing is that although this song sounds highly melodic it really isn’t. If we ignore the instrumental one-two-threes and the catchy bippetty-boppetty background rhythm and just focus on the vocal line, the ‘tune’ such as it is turns out to be more of a rhythmic narrative than a melody, and the harmony is a simple three-chord construction.
This illustrates one of the most remarkable things about Paul Simon’s song-writing; despite the beautiful serpentine character of his best melodies, they often exist on mere three-chord structures; Bridge over troubled waters for example. They seem complex but they are often very simple. This is real magic.
But oh I wish he’d try harder with his lesser stuff; so much filler.