Paul Simon is one the smartest, most talented songwriters of all time. From the timeless music he made as one half of Simon and Garfunkel to the consistently excellent solo records he’s been releasing ever since, Simon is one of those rare musicians who seems to only know how to produce top-quality material.
Stranger to Stranger, Simon’s 13th solo album and his first since 2011’s phenomenal So Beautiful or So What, officially came out today. And to celebrate, I thought I’d spend a little time reviewing his storied career with help from one of my favorite people on the whole planet, Aaron.
He’s my own personal Garfunkel, if you will. Or maybe I’m his Garfunkel? I’m not sure; friendships are confusing.
Aaron and I each wrote about three of our favorite Simon efforts from over the years. It’s remarkable to look at the years these records were all released and see how long the man has been crafting such good music.
So let’s get started …
Paul Simon (1972)
Review by: Aaron
Favorite tracks: “Peace Like a River,” “Run That Body Down” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”
What would it sound like to listen to the perfect album? Does it even exist? Well, I submit Paul Simon’s self-titled album as a candidate for that “Perfect Score” trophy. It’s just barely over 30 minutes long, it’s got folk (“Duncan”), pop (“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”), blues (“Paranoia Blues”) and even a little bit of reggae with one of my favorite album openers of all-time (“Mother and Child Reunion”). There’s not any filler to be found unless you consider the instrumental “Hobo Blues” but even then I think it fits nicely and adds to the pacing of Side 2. Every note, lyric, strum and sparse instrumentation (flutes, organ, a violin and a few horns here and there) serves each song and ultimately the flow of the entire album.
I imagine if you were a fan of Simon before he embarked on his solo career in the late 60s, you might have wished for a stripped down, just Paul-and-his-guitar kind of experience and you’d have been in luck. Songs like “Everything Put Together Falls Apart,” “Run That Body Down” and “Armistice Day” showcase Simon’s superb acoustic guitar picking and his fantastic sense of rhythm – they aren’t over-orchestrated like they might have been alongside Garfunkel.
Of course, the true highlight and revelation in this collection of fresh and influential songs was the songwriting. Nuanced and intelligent, yet displaying Simon’s obvious street smarts and his now signature off-the-wall witty humor. This album holds up incredibly well and it’s surprising how strong it is even though it was essentially his first solo outing (he did make a solo attempt in 1965 while living in London with The Paul Simon Songbook but it wasn’t fully released in the U.S. until 1981).
My favorite song on this perfectly balanced self-titled record is “Peace Like a River” and the explanation for that is simple: the lyrics are powerful, Simon’s vocals are stunning and the guitar playing is out of this world. It’s also a hugely important song because the urgency of the lyrics and music give us a preview of what Simon will become with Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints and So Beautiful or So What – one of the best songwriters in the history of modern music and certainly one of the most gifted lyricists living today. If Simon’s solo career was a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house, this foundational self-titled outing would certainly be the cornerstone that all twelve of his other albums are built upon.
Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
Review by: Michael
Favorite tracks: “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Gone at Last”
In many ways, I think Still Crazy After All These Years acts as the true beginning to Simon’s solo career. Paul Simon and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon are phenomenal records, but I tend to lump early hits such as “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “Kodachrome,” and “Love Me Like a Rock” with Simon and Garfunkel’s output. Still Crazy After All These Years, though, finds Simon in a very different place personally, lyrically, and musically. (Also: that mustache!) The arrangements are jazzier and further from Simon’s folk roots than ever before, and our hero’s songwriting seems much more pessimistic and biting this time around.
The album opens with the terrific one-two punch of “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “My Little Town.” The former is a beautiful song about nostalgia and loneliness that features one of Simon’s most touching vocal performances, with a saxophone solo thrown in for good measure, and the latter is the one-off reunion with none other than Mr. Garfunkel himself. Of course, the most popular song here is “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” one of Simon’s greatest achievements to date and one of the funniest songs about the end of a relationship you’re likely to ever hear. (Before Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus, and the rest actually get their advice, the song kicks off with a flat-out legendary drum part. If it’s been awhile since you heard “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” listen again to those opening moments.)
Much of the rest of Still Crazy After All These Years is a fairly mellow affair. “Night Game,” “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy,” “Have a Good Time,” and “Silent Eyes” are all great for late-night listening sessions, even when the arrangements pick up for a moment.
Breaking that trend, however, is the sublime “Gone at Last.” I honestly can’t make it through this song without moving my body in some capacity, whether it’s shaking my head, tapping my foot, or a whole lot more; I think it’s physically impossible. The background vocals, the driving beat, and that knockout guest performance from Phoebe Snow all add up to make “Gone at Last” one of the more underrated tracks of Simon’s entire career.
Review by: Michael
Favorite tracks: “Graceland,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and “Homeless”
Oh man. I don’t even know where to start with this one … so I suppose I’ll just start ranting and we can go from there. Graceland is one of my absolute favorite albums of all time, and quite possibly my favorite record of the 80s. I love every note of every song, and I never grow tired of hearing any of it.
With 1983’s Hearts and Bones, Simon had delivered his first album that could be viewed as a legitimate flop. (It’s not a bad album, by the way. Recommended listening if you ask me!) The famous story is that Simon, while battling some personal demons, ended up getting obsessed with South African music he heard on a random cassette tape. That obsession grew and grew until he was actually in South Africa, jamming with a room full of elite local musicians. And after months of recording and late-night editing sessions, Graceland was finally complete.
(The way Simon wrote, recorded, and released this album pissed off a lot of people, and some remain furious to this day.)
The finished product is unlike anything else that had come before it. The arrangements are bursting with life, yet meticulously edited with precision. Accordions and native African instruments mixed with guitar synthesizers and cutting-edge studio trickery. It’s fucking magnificent.
The album kicks off with a jump start. The opening accordion of “The Boy in the Bubble” is disorienting, not because it’s unpleasant. but because it’s so full of energy and movement. Simon’s lyrics are poetic as always, but also surreal and adventurous. “The Boy in the Bubble” on its own would make Graceland one of my favorite albums, but it’s just one of eleven electric performances. We’re just getting started, folks!
Next up is the title track, which is actually closer to Simon’s typical sound than perhaps anything else on the album. It’s still a brave new twist on that sound, though, and I’ve always loved that bass part.
The wordplay here is especially strong. The Mississippi Delta was shining/ Like a national guitar/ I am following the river down the highway/ Through the cradle of the civil war is one of the better opening lyrics you’ll ever hear. It’s striking just how literary Simon’s lyrics can be; if these lyrics were the opening two sentences of a novel, I’d want to read all of it, and quickly.
The album peaks with the one-two punch of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al.” Those opening 56 seconds of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” always put a smile on my face, and I love how Simon sounds so carefree in his singing. And that horn section! The whole thing is one big circus of dancing, bright colors, and light.
And just as you have a firm grip of the situation, the song ends, leaving you with absurdly silly “You Can Call Me Al.” Is this Simon’s greatest pure pop song? It might just be.
And then there’s “Homeless.” Sweet, perfect “Homeless.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo singer Joseph Shabalala leads the group through an achingly beautiful song that goes a full two minutes before Simon makes his presence known and momentarily takes center stage.
Every song on Graceland is terrific. All of them. Even songs I don’t necessarily think of all that often (“Gumboots,” “That Was Your Mother”) are outstanding and deserve a lot of love. Best album of the 80s? Yes, I think so.
The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)
Review by: Aaron
Favorite tracks: “Proof,” “The Cool, Cool River” and “Spirit Voices”
I suppose that The Rhythm of the Saints is the closest thing to a world music style record that I have in my regularly accessed music collection, but I never think of it as world music or ethnic or anything but a Paul Simon record. It features some of the most mature and beautifully poetic lyrics Simon has ever written. That’s not to say that world music can’t have amazing lyrics, but this is 100% a Paul Simon album and defies any genre categorization. Consider “She Moves On” and “Born at the Right Time,” both are sentimental and display Simon’s consciousness of how big our universe really is. Then you have musical achievements like “The Cool, Cool River” and “Spirit Voices” which are overwhelming in their approach to storytelling and envelope the listener in the world that Simon’s voice pulls you into. When he sings in “Spirit Voices” that the herbal brew he tries in the brujo’s dwelling leaves his hands numb and his feet heavy, it’s so easy to be transported to a foreign place where voices in the night really do rule the night.
A lot of the other songs have some wild instrumentation but Simon’s lyricism, as it usually does, floats above everything else and the music becomes an environment or maybe even a habitat for his voice rather than the driving factor. I think that’s the biggest difference between this album and Graceland. His writing actually improved and the music slowed down therefore presenting us with a wholly different experience. I used to lump Rhythm in with 1986’s South African-influenced Graceland as a more Brazilian (or maybe Latin) follow-up, for example, “The Coast” could easily have appeared on both albums and would have fit perfectly but that’s the only crossover song I can think of.
I suppose I thought Rhythm was kind of like Simon’s version of Radiohead’s follow-up to Kid A, 2001’s Amnesiac. Maybe, I assumed, it’s from around the same time period in his career so it’s related, almost a B-side collection of leftover material? I was obviously wrong. I sorely underestimated Amnesiac’s staying power and uniqueness, just like I had Rhythm’s eventual enduring resonance and originality. Rhythm is undoubtedly related to Graceland, but its influences, production and pulse are so different that I think it stands apart. Although, it also didn’t help that both albums were accompanied by a music video starring Chevy Chase (“You Can Call Me Al” and “Proof”).
I definitely think that Simon’s 2006 album, Surprise, is a companion piece to Rhythm in some ways with its many references to prayer, starry skies and its big picture approach to epic storytelling. It’s also similar in that Simon contradicts himself lyrically when it comes to God and religion. Sometimes he seems to suggest that prayer and a deity could influence our lives but at other times he seems to say, “Look, we need to take the universe and our short time on this planet at face value and love others while we can.” Perhaps, though, his point is that life might be a curious mix of both concepts.
My favorite song on the album is “Proof” – it’s fun and upbeat yet the lyrics and message cut deep. It’s a blatant display of humanism that challenges several other sentimental and superstitious songs on the album. Paul lays it out for us: Faith is an island in the setting sun/But proof, yes/Proof is the bottom line for everyone. The rhythmically cool, muted guitar and keyboards give way to an upbeat, attention-getting and superbly memorable horn arrangement.
By the time we get to the closing title track, we’ve taken a spiritual journey rooted in the sounds of Brazil and Africa (and beyond) so it’s fitting that the tribal drums and chanting female backing vocals accompanying Simon’s voice leave us with a mysterious request: Reach in the darkness/ A reach in the dark/ To overcome an obstacle or an enemy/ To dominate the impossible in your life/ Reach in the darkness/A reach in the dark.
Review by: Aaron
Favorite tracks: “I Don’t Believe,” “Another Galaxy,” and “Father and Daughter”
Paul Simon’s 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno turned 10 years old last month, so it’s really special to be reflecting on it just as Stranger to Stranger is being released. Surprise is my favorite Paul Simon album; there, I said it. I think this ranking probably has more to do with me than it does the composers, but doesn’t all music have to eventually be processed by our individual preferences and our own unique take on the world? Graceland is unquestionably his very best album but Surprise is an exceptionally personal album for me and has, in turn, garnered the most listens.
2006 found me facing a huge transition in my life. I was about to move to a different city and become the first person in my family to venture out of our hometown area. This recording was the soundtrack for that uprooting and it applied to my adventure in a strangely specific way. It’s the only album I own where I still feel like the singer is speaking to me directly. I’ve never had a collection of music affect me so profoundly.
We found Paul Simon at his most humble and vulnerable on this record, especially with “Outrageous”: Tell me, who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?/God will, like he waters the flowers on the window sill/Take me, I’m an ordinary player in the key of C/And my will was broken by my pride and my vanity. The honesty on Surprise was unflinchingly raw and the depth of the concepts presented certainly rewarded longtime listeners.
This album still transports me to a genuinely holy and altogether spiritual place. Eno’s electronic soundscapes enhance the big picture approach that Simon is going for on this project and it’s one of the most intriguing collaborations I’ve ever heard.
“Another Galaxy,” the best song on the album, brought me comfort a decade ago and still warms me today with its transcendent and bigger-than-life lyrics: There is a moment, a chip in time/ When leaving home is the lesser crime/ When your eyes are blind with tears/ But your heart can see/ Another life, another galaxy.
I know I’m sharing a lot of lyrical passages here, but Simon wrote some of the most insightful poetry of his career on Surprise. “Wartime Prayers” will never be considered one his best songs by critics but, as I said, I’m getting personal here and as I meditate on the words, they grow in strength and insight as I get older: I’m trying to tap into some wisdom/ Even a little drop would do/ I want to rid my heart of envy/ And cleanse my soul of rage/ Before I’m through.
I’ve always liked “Father and Daughter,” the last song on Surprise, but it felt kind of tacked on and didn’t bring balance to the album for me when it was first released. That changed when my wife and I had children. This song now means everything to me, especially now that I have a little girl. It absolutely completes the experience of this record in a way I couldn’t possibly have understood the first time around; it’s exceptionally relatable and each listen warms my soul. At one point the singer assures his child that there’s not a monster under the bed and comforts her with: I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever/ And never leave til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head. It’s one of my favorite lines from the album and it’s quintessential Paul Simon – strikingly poetic yet subtlety humorous.
I want to wrap it up with an epically beautiful section from “I Don’t Believe,” the seventh track: The earth was born in a storm/ The waters receded, the mountains were formed/ “The universe loves a drama,” you know/ And ladies and gentlemen this is the show.
Apparently, Simon’s current wife uttered the short “universe loves a drama” quote above, perhaps making this their first lyrical partnership. I like that he mixed it up and took several different approaches with this album. It proved that he was still an ever-evolving artist, even at the age of 64. I think the risks paid off, and I’ll be listening to Surprise for the rest of my life.
So Beautiful or So What (2011)
Review by: Michael
Favorite tracks: “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “Dazzling Blue,” and “Rewrite”
When I first heard “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” the lead single from So Beautiful or So What, on NPR, it blew me away. That sudden slide guitar part, the raw percussion, and the sampled dialogue all created a one-of-a-kind sound that had me absolutely mesmerized. I love that it was the first song on the album too. Not unlike the way he began Graceland with “The Boy in the Bubble” some 25 years before, Simon purposefully kicked off So Beautiful or So What with a jolt, grabbing the listener’s attention and refusing to let go.
I’ll always have a soft spot for “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” but it’s just one of So Beautiful or So What’s many highlights.
“Dazzling Blue” is another highlight. Simon wrote the song about his wife, Edie Brickell, and the sweet lyrics are a great match for the Indian percussion that forms the song’s backbone. Maybe love’s an accident, or destiny is true, he sings. But you and I were born beneath a star of dazzling blue.
“Dazzling Blue” leads right into “Rewrite,” maybe the catchiest song on the entire record. Simon leads the song with his guitar, and the mid-song change of pace is gorgeous. I also love how the help me, help me, help me, help me, thank you! section at the start of the chorus leads to that wonderful whistling. There are so many different things going on here! And there’s all so, so good.
Brief instrumental “Amulet” and the song it leads into, “Questions for the Angels,” are also worth mentioning. “Amulet” is downright lovely, and then “Questions for the Angels” paints a picture of the two very different sides of New York. It also features the single best lyrics on the entire record: If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it / Should disappear/ Would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah/ Care enough to shed one zebra tear?
So Beautiful or So What may have been released nearly 50 years after Simon first found significant success as a songwriter, but it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his greatest achievements. If Paul Simon, Graceland, and Still Crazy After All These Years make up the very top tier of his discography, So Beautiful or So What is certainly on that very next level, alongside such classics as There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and The Rhythm of the Saints.
Simon’s position as one of the all-time greats was already firmly established in 2011—it had been for decades, really—yet he still had the smarts, the talent, and the fearlessness to write exciting new material unlike anything he had ever done before. This is a truly impressive record, and writing about it now has me even more excited to sit down and absorb Stranger to Stranger.