Monday, July 19, 2010

Shuffle : Hearts and Bones

Paul Simon has never been hip. Will never be hip. Paul Simon and hip just aren’t meant to be.
He isn’t hip now, as an establishment relic of the 1960s and the 1980s who releases the odd, little-heard record to a muted response and plays on tours to ageing fans. He wasn’t hip in the 80s, despite the approval of MTV, when he was seen by some as piggy-backing on African musicians to massive commercial success with his Graceland album. He wasn’t even hip in the 60s, when he and Art Garfunkel were the safe folk duo you could bring home to your mother, all angelic ballads, smooth, catchy melodies and soulful gazes on album covers.
Never hip, then.
But what a songwriter.

I will contend that Simon has written as many stone cold Classic pop songs as any American songwriter of his gilded generation. More than most, even. His Simon & Garfunkel legacy is a bewilderingly brilliant body of work, from the haunting, lovely folk of their early work to the often Epic folk-rock of the last two records.
The early material – easily available on one of the many Best Ofs and compilations the duo have generated over the years – is best known for songs like “The Sound of Silence”, “I Am a Rock” and “Scarborough Fair”. But there is also Simon as morose balladeer, as on “For Emily, Wherever I may find Her”, a rapturous dream of love lost and sought anew with Garfunkel stretched to the very outer limits of his range on the last lines, and “Homeward Bound”, his lovely, elegiac tale of loneliness and anticipation on the road in England. Both these songs, alongside “Kathy’s Song” are best appreciated in live versions. The early albums are somewhat ill-served by their production, as if Simon had not quite discovered how best to treat his music when given a full band and a studio to play with. But just him, Garfunkel and a guitar on stage show the beauty and simplicity of his writing at that point, and some of this music is breathtaking. By the time they came to make their later albums, Simon had firmer ideas about how to use these new tools, and he implemented them. Those last two records are both brilliant. Bookends, a sort-of concept album, is ambitious and eclectic and all founded on Simon’s gift for melody and ear for an evocative, casually poetic lyric.

Its highpoints are among the greatest forgotten songs of the 60s: “America”, a sad and epic romantic road-movie in three and a half minutes that culminates in a couple of verses, which go from conversational and inescapably real to devastating and puzzled, then expand to an almost universal concern:
“Toss me a cigarette/I think there’s one in my raincoat/We smoked the last one an hour ago/So I looked at the scenery/she read her magazine/And the moon rose over an open field./ Cathy I’m lost, I said/Though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why/ Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike/ They’ve all come to look for America/All come to look for America.”
Musically, this song begins as a gentle folk stroll founded on guitar, a fluid bassline, what sounds like a Hammond organ and some drums that suggest nothing so much as the Beatles’ incomparable “A Day In the Life”. It expands as it progresses, however, with some jazzy horn during the second verse, and a fuller sound as the song reaches its climax. The extraordinary power and purity of Art Garfunkel’s voice is subtly deployed throughout, only really registering during the final lines. Then there is “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, most famously covered by The Bangles, who made it softer and lighter than the driving rocker Simon founded on a fantastic riff and a dark, ominous lyric which seems to foresee the death of the 60s. And “At the Zoo”, a silly, unexpectedly funky piece of psychedelia by way of Charles Burns. And “Mrs Robinson”, not a bad song in its own right.

Bridge Over Troubled Water contains the title track, one of those songs which has somehow transcended itself, despite the singular majesty of Garfunkel’s performance on it, and also the epic shaggy dog tale, “The Boxer” with its insistent, singalong chorus, and the joyous “Cecilia”, a stomping love song unlike anything else they had done.
Then there is the ghostly melancholy of “The Only Living Boy In New York”, where Simon’s slow sad smile of a melody and the vague existential crises of his lyrics bespeak a sort of cultural ennui: “I get the news I need on a weather report/ I can gather all the news I need on the weather report/ Hey, I‘ve got nothing to do all day but smile” “Half of the time we’re gone/But we don’t know where/And we don’t know where”.
Garfunkel is so seldom used on much of the record a split was inevitable, and when it came Simon continued with the high quality songs. His Paul Simon record contained both the cod-reggae of “Mother & Child Reunion” and the latino folk-pop of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”, alongside the darker “Paranoia Blues”.

Through the 1970s he grew less vital, tossing out a couple of great songs per album, his sound becoming more middle of the road and less assured with each release. Even so, there are a few classics from this decade: “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” (both from Still Crazy After All These Years) and “Something So Right” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.
He lost his way in the early 80s, when he wrote and starred in One Trick Pony (Robert M Young, 1980), a seemingly semi-autobiographical film about a washed-up folk rock star struggling with his label, his ex-wife and son. Simon, as his brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall had suggested, is no actor, and the film flopped. The accompanying album was also a disappointment.

Simon would surge back to critical and commercial success in 1986 with the release of Graceland, a sort of tour through World Music, which exposed Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Okyrerema Asante to an International audience and included a controversial collaboration with Los Lobos (who accused Simon of stealing one of their songs) alongside some roots American styles. All of it at the service of some of Simon’s best writing, from the nagging, disposable soul-pop of “You Can Call Me Al” to the state-of-the-world snapshots of “Boy In the Bubble” (“These are the days of miracles and wonder/This is a long distance call/The way the camera follows us in slo mo/The way we look to us all”). Then there is “Graceland” itself, which Simon has called the best song he has written, and is another personal tour of American culture which yokes the intimate together with the universal in the manner of much of his best music and does contain some of the greatest lines he ever wrote: “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar”, “She comes back to tell me shes gone/As if I didn’t know that/ As if I didn’t know my own bed/As if I’d never noticed/The way she brushes her hair from her forehead”.

But my choice for the greatest song Paul Simon ever wrote is “Hearts and Bones” from the 1983 album of the same name. That record was originally conceived as a Simon & Garfunkel collaboration on the back of a successful reunion tour. But the duo had problems in the studio and when the project was scrapped, Simon transformed the sessions into a solo record. This suited the autobiographical nature of the songs, which dealt with his divorce from his first wife and his recent relationship with Carrie Fisher. The title track is one of Simon's most muted productions, but it is also perfectly judged and arranged.
Delicate guitar in Simon's trademark finger-picked style - always casual, hiding its virtuosity - picks out a melody over what sounds like bongos, the occasional quiet bleed of organ and humming. The melody is sad and beautiful, the arrangement haunting and elegiac, and Simon's lyric is poetic in his singular way: he makes a love song based on his own experiences a more general and universal enquiry into the condition of love, with moving results.

The general assumption is that the song is entirely about his relationship with Fisher. But since the song chronicles "the arc of a love affair", including its demise, and it was written in 1982 (Simon and Fisher married in 1983), it seems likely that he fictionalised a relationship with some aspects of several actual affairs, which may serve to give the song some of its final universality. The early verses certainly refer to Fisher, and are founded on some breathtakingly evocative imagery:
"One and one-half wandering Jews/Free to wander wherever they choose/Are travelling together/In the Sangre de Cristo/The Blood of Christ Mountains/Of New Mexico/On the last leg of the journey/They started a long time ago/The arc of a love affair/Rainbows in the high desert air/Mountain passes slipping into stones/Hearts and bones."
This is Simon returning to the travelogue mode that had served him so well on "America" (and which he would re-use for "Graceland"). His ease with a vivid phrase is evident in the picture he paints of landscape in a few lines, and he sketches the couple in more telling detail in the next verse:
"Thinking back to the season before/Looking back through the cracks in the door/Two people were married/The act was outrageous/The bride was contagious/She burned like a bride/These events may have had some effect/On the man with the girl by his side/The arc of a love affair/His hands rolling down her hair/Love like lightning shaking till it moans/Hearts and bones."

Simon is, as much as anything else, a great storyteller. But its one thing to tell a story in a song, and another thing to make anyone care. The crux of the song comes in the middle eight, where a tiff becomes something deeper in a matter of lines and the girl asks "And tell me why/Why won't you love me/For who I am/Where I am?"
And here Simon lets all of the arrangement drop away save for a single soft repeated guitar chord and the barest hiss of keyboard, as if to underline the centrality of the next lines, where his voice is lent a quiet echo in the mix, emphasising the finality of the sentiment: "He said/'Cause that's not the way the world is baby/This is how I love you, baby/This is how I love you, baby."

This seems a devastating and bleak view of love, as always conditional, always somehow compromised. And yet this is a song written by a jaded, divorced man of the world and it is refreshing to hear such honesty. Love is complex, Simon is saying, and not always enough. The final verse confirms that the couple has split to "speculate who had been damaged the most" on their "natural coasts". And then Simon widens his gaze to comment on love itself, and on its binding power. His couple love one another with a passion like "lightning", yes, but that is not enough to keep them together, altough there is some measure of ambiguity in his last lines. Does he believe that their love survives, or just that they have been marked by it, and will always be a part of one another? "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/Their hearts and their bones/And they won't come undone/Hearts and bones." The fact that this passage is the most upbeat in the song and that Simon's vocal is at its most passionate here gives it an optimistic tone, even if the lyric does not wholly support that.
But then there is something optimistic about the beauty of the song itself, its sympathy and warmth, the loveliness of the melody. This is one of Simon's greatest gifts as a writer; even at his bleakest he seems somehow hopeful. It may even be key to his popular success.

As for hipness, he has come as close as he ever will in the last decade with some retrospective hipster approval for his extensive back catalogue. Wes Anderson used "Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard" in The Royal Tenenbaums while Zach Braff put "The Only Living Boy In New York" in Garden State alongside The Shins and Frou Frou. Meanwhile, Simon's songs have been covered by Grizzly Bear, Hot Chip, Conor Oberst and the Kings of Convenience over the last few years. Still, nobody seems to recognise the sublime brilliance of "Hearts and Bones", and it remains one of the least loved records he released.
Carrie Fisher? She and Simon divorced in July 1984, dated again for a while after that, then split. They had been together on and off since 1977. Shes more famous for some movies shes in.

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Blogger Beezer B said...

Don't have much to add. I think he wrote some great songs but I'm not sure how much I like him as a singer. "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" stays played in my house and uh, I'm known to cart a copy of "Call Me Al" around in my party box for when things get dumb.
I'm kind of interested to know if you'd recommend any of the 70s albums as I don't know them at all aside from the singles.

12:51 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Not really, actually.
"Paul Simon" is easily the best, but if you know the singles, you know the highlights of every record between "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Graceland".
"Negotiations And LoveSongs" is a great primer, and all you need for that entire period.

11:52 pm  

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