Review: Paul Simon – Songwriter (Columbia Legacy, 2011)
This two-disc, thirty-two track collection (with a generous running time of 139 minutes) highlights the legendary songwriting of Paul Simon. The composer himself selected the tracks, touching on both hits and the lesser-known compositions of which he’s most proud. The result is an idiosyncratic tour of Simon’s catalog that will remind you of his broad commercial power, but key you into the depth of his craft as a writer. The selections focus almost entirely on Simon’s post Simon & Garfunkel career, with only a solo live take of “The Sound of Silence” (the set’s only previously unreleased track), Simon’s 1991 Concert in the Park recording of “The Boxer,” and Aretha Franklin’s 1970 cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reaching back to his duo work.
The bulk of the collection cherry-picks from Simon’s solo albums, stretching from 1972’s Paul Simon through this year’s So Beautiful or So What. Selections from Simon’s well-loved albums of the 1970s and his commercial renaissance sparked by Graceland will be familiar, but deep album cuts, picks from Hearts and Bones and Songs from the Capeman (including the excellent 50s-pastiche “Quality”), and his contribution to the soundtrack of The Wild Thornberrys Movie will be fresh to many listener’s ears. The breadth of Simon’s writing mirrors both his own maturation as a person and the evolution of the society in which he wrote. The reactionary outbursts of his early songs were stoked by youth and the turbulent times in which he was living; his early post-S&G years found him developing a solo personality and indulging his musical interests in reggae, doo-wop, and South American folk.
Simon’s music has been as revelatory and memorable as his words, speedily evolving from the acoustic arrangements of the folk scene to sophisticated tapestries of instruments and genres. Decades before Graceland introduced African music to the American audience, Simon augmented his palette with American gospel, Peruvian folk and Jamaican reggae. He explored sounds from South Africa, Brazil and the American South, all the while embroidering his autobiographical, observational and imaginative lyrics with ideas drawn from his musical interests. His relationships seeded numerous songs, including ones of developing love (“Hearts and Bones”), family (“Father and Daughter” and “So Beautiful Or So What”), marital turbulence (“Darling Lorraine”) and dissolution (“Tenderness”). His evolving view of society provided bookends to the American unrest with the angry “The Sound of Silence” and the haggard “American Tune.”
Over the years, Simon’s craft sharpened, his characters multiplied, his philosophical and emotional insights deepened, and his favorite lyrics became more impressionistic and poetic. But winningly, his music remained accessible as he teased apart new layers in existing forms and interwove the fresh threads if his ever-broadening musical grasp. Simon sees himself first as a songwriter, secondarily as a performer and recording artist, but as these recordings attest, his words, melodies, arrangements and estimable guitar playing are all deeply intertwined. Simon always surrounded himself with carefully picked players who add original colors to his songs with their instruments and voices. Listening to a set of his recordings, it’s easy to appreciate the songwriter, but difficult to untangle that appreciation from the carefully crafted performances.
The set’s booklet includes full lyrics, but no song notes by the author. Simon, most likely, sees the lyrics as the best possible explanation of the songs. Still, the stories behind the songs would have been an interesting extra. The absence of Simon & Garfunkel recordings leaves the listener to remember how Simon’s first blaze of glory sounded; the words are here in three early songs, but as noted, Simon’s lyrics are deeply wedded to his expression, which originally included Art Garfunkel. The set’s forward is written by painter (and apparent Paul Simon superfan) Chuck Close, and the liner notes are by Tom Moon. Full musician, production and release credits are also included.