From the very first bars of the first song on Paul Simon’s second post-Garfunkel solo album, there’s a completely different feel from the previous year’s self-titled album. If I had to pick a single word to summarise how that album feels it would be “weary”; for this album, that word would be “sunny”. [Listen on Grooveshark.]
It’s not really clear why that should be the case. One guess — and the song Saint Judy’s Comet offers it some support — would be that the birth of his first child, Harper Simon, lifted his mood. I’m not sure I buy that, though. Harper was born in September 1972, which you’d think would be too late to materially affect an album that was recorded between September 1972 and January 1973, having presumably been written before that. My guess is that the very different emotional tones of these two albums is mostly an artistic decision: that Simon just wanted to paint with a different palette.
Whatever the reason, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is, on the whole, a feel-good album. Even the title is gently jokey, as opposed to the rather stark self-titling of the previous album, and song titles like Take Me to the Mardi Gras and Was a Sunny Day promise a cheerfulness and optimsim that the album wholeheartedly delivers — with the crucial exception of one track.
Kodachrome kicks the album off with a bright, breezy acoustic guitar pattern which is quickly joined by drums and percussion. It’s as much a statement of emotional intent as Mother and Child Reunion was of musical eclecticism in the previous album. That breezy tone is maintained throughout, and reflected in the words of the chorus:
Give us the nice, bright colours
Give us the greens of summer
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
What’s maybe more interesting is that that same tone is still used in the second verse when the words are less optimistic:
If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination
The vocal delivery and instrumental backing contrive to make this observation rueful rather than downbeat — it’s sung with a half-smile, and doesn’t deflect the song’s emotional trajectory one bit.
What to make of this? At the risk of over-interpreting, the song seems to be about, if anything, acceptance of aging. The opening verse is about “when I look back on all the crap I learned in high-school”; the second verse acknowledges that high-school girls are all gone, and were never what he thought they were anyway. Simon was into his thirties when this album was recorded, and … seems to have been enjoying it.
In fact, the lament-for-lost-youth theme is one that is conspicuously absent not only from this album, but from all Simon’s work, right up to 2011′s So Beautiful or So What. His songs express plenty of regret, sure: but regret about specific experiences, mistakes, relationships, failures. Never about the mere passage of time. That seems healthy to me: time passes, there’s nothing we can do about it and no point in regretting it.
So it may be a stretch to say that Kodachrome is actually about the inevitability and acceptability of the passage of time. But that’s what it speaks to me about.
Tenderness should be a very down song — but again it somehow isn’t, despite the slow tempo, dark harmonies and wryly honest, analytical lyrics:
What can I do, what can I do?
Much of what you say is true
I know you see through me
But there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.
The song makes a nice counterpart to Billy Joel’s Honesty, a piano ballad that is the second track on his 1978 abum 52nd Street. Joel’s lyric is a plea for honesty in a relationship where truth is concealed behind a suffocating mask of white lies. You might almost think that Tenderness is a riposte to that song, were it not that is was released five years earlier. Simon’s take is the opposite: “Right and wrong — they never helped us get along / You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty”.
The arrangement rests heavily on the doo-wop harmonies of The Dixie Hummingbirds. That was the sound that Simon grew up with, listening to bands like the Penguins, the Moonglows, the Oreoles and the Five Satins — a list which would later be recited as part of his song Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War. It may be in part this arrangement that prevents the song from sounding depressing.
Take Me to the Mardi Gras is a trivial song, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s just pleasant to hear, and so a perfect bridge between the ambiguous angst of Tenderness and the perplexed bliss of Something so Right. Simon has always been thought of as a particularly serious songwriter (he considered self-mockingly titling one of the early S&G albums So Young Yet So Full of Pain), but here he’s content just to relax and let the world slide by. The effortless falsetto vocal contribution of Rev. Claude Jeter sits perfectly over its backing.
The odd thing about this song is how very un-Mardi Gras-like it sounds. The New Orleans flamboyance and energy is set aside entirely in favour of a zoned-out drifting feel.
(For two very different takes on this song, including one that is more Mardi Gras-like, check out both halves of this live performance in a Katrina benefit in 2005.)
Something So Right seems to split opinion. Its detractors see it as maudlin or schmaltzy — two words that you don’t see together as often as you should — whereas its devotees, me included, think it’s just about perfect.
Sung as a declaration, it would be awful: it’s all too easy to imagine an appalling Sinatra version. And much as I love Barbra Streisand, her version is similarly too confident. She reads it as a sort of journey from from uncertainty to ecstasy. But Simon’s own performance is much better judged: half mumbled, blurred and indistinct, always tentative, and with a core of unspoken insecurity that persists even though the sunnier passages. He sings it like a man who is enjoying the moment without necessarily trusting it to endure.
One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor is a pleasant throwaway. The lyric takes the title literally (“it’s just apartment house rules / So all you ‘partment house fools / Remember one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”) but there’s an obvious metaphorical interpretation regarding the differences in different people’s lives, perhaps looking forward to Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy on the next album. I rather like how we’re left to infer the metaphor ourselves rather than having it spelled out. But there’s no denying that this song is rather a lightweight conclusion to side one.
And then suddenly, opening side two of his sunniest album, comes arguably Paul Simon’s weariest song. American Tune is the heart of the album, even though (or perhaps because) it is so different in tone.
It shares much with its similarly named antecedent, America, from the 1966 Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends. Both songs are essentially intimate little anthems of disillusionment (and yes, I realise that “intimate” and “anthem” contradict each other; that reflects the paradoxical nature of the songs themselves).
But while the earlier S&G song has a pleasantly sing-along tune over relatively straightforward chords — most people in the audience sang along when I performed it at the Forest Folk Club — American Tune is built on an uncompromisingly baroque melody over distinctly non-folkish harmony, both of them lifted from a J. S. Bach piece. It’s a surprising choice for someone usually thought of a folk-singer, though in truth Simon had long been much more eclectic than that designation suggests. The lyric of American Tune is a detailed, literate exploration of the decay of the American Dream, and the winding melody with its long, uneven lines is a perfect setting for that lyric — as is the sparse arrangement, very dependent on Simon’s acoustic guitar.
American Tune also differs from America in that the lyric is much more didactic. The earlier song essentially tells a short story and leaves the listener to make what he will of it. There is an amiable inevitability in the progressive erosion of the relationship between the narrator and Kathy. This handily parallels the loss of faith in the ideal of America, but that parallel is not hammered home, or indeed explicitly stated at all. By contrast, American Tune opens with a sequence of flat statements:
Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
It would quickly become hectoring if it didn’t immediately shoot off at right-angles, quickly arriving on “Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant / So far away from home” — a sentiment already far removed from the catalogue of wrongs that opens the verse. The second verse follows a similar pattern, the moment of acceptance coming with “But it’s all right, it’s all right / For we’ve lived so well so long”, before making the poignantly open-hearted concession:
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong
And from there the song gathers up its skirts and takes flight into magic realism. The release really is a release, an escape from the emotional ambivalence of the opening verses mediated by a melody that opens up and reaches to a much higher register, as well as the first prominent use of strings. The momentum of that release carries the song through the potentially disturbing image of “the Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea” and into a third verse that reaches some kind of resolution.
And that resolution is, like so much of Paul Simon’s work, ambiguous. The triumphant image of “the ship that sailed the moon” gives way to a blend of optimism and resignation that could stand as a fair summary of all Simon’s work:
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest
In the catalogue of a songwriter who’s written more than his fair share of classics, American Tune stands alongside America, both of them among the half dozen or so of his very best.
After those heights and depths, Was a Sunny Day is basically a palate cleanser, and none the worse for that. A little collection of character sketches over a pleasantly dopey musical backdrop, it comes and goes and leaves the world much as it found it.
A busy little guitar figure instroduces Learn How to Fall, which quickly settles into an easy groove quite in keeping with song’s advice: “You’ve got to learn how to fall before you learn to fly … You’re got to drift in the breeze before you set your sails”. It’s a surprisingly casual approach from a songwriter as obsessive and perfectionist as Simon — one that’s in keeping with the sunny, lazy atmosphere that pervades much of this record, but quite at odds with the rest of his oeuvre. It works, but it doesn’t tear up any trees.
And so we come to the album’s penultimate song, St. Judy’s Comet – a lullabye for Simon’s son. Contentment is not an emotion that one associates with Simon, whose work is often angst-ridden or at least riddled with self-doubt — but St. Judy’s Comet is a rare and delightful exception. It’s a beautiful thing to hear such uncomplicated and straightforward joy from a songwriter better known for intricate explorations of what-ifs, maybes and reservations.
None of that is to say that the song is negligible. If Was a Sunny Day and Learn How to Fall are arguably throwaways, that’s not true here. St. Judy’s Comet is lovingly crafted, and constructed with all the care that went into the more ostensibly important American Tune. The apparently casual lyrics have a sharp eye for detail — what parent hasn’t experienced this?
Oh, little sleepy boy, do you know what time it is?
The hour of your bedtime’s long been past
And though I know you’re fighting it
I can tell when you rub your eyes, you’re fading fast.
Later, Simon is uncharacteristically self-deprecatory:
Well I sang it once and I sang it twice, I’m gonna sing it three times more
I’m going sing ’til your resistance is overcome
‘Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep
It makes your famous daddy look so dumb.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who only eight years earlier wrote “I am a rock, I am an island / And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries”. What makes both songs work is the sense that Simon — unlike, say, Richard Shindell, who is really a character actor with a guitar — personally feels both of these songs (and his others). Either he is an unusually autobiographical songwriter, or he’s superb at passing off others’ feelings as his own; and I’m not cynical enough to prefer the latter explanation.
Loves Me Like a Rock closes the album with a gospel-style sing-along. Rather to my surprise, it turns out that this reached #2 when released as a single in the USA — rather humiliatingly kept off the top by Cher. To be honest, I don’t see that it has that much to recommend it, and it’s a rather anticlimactic closer to an album that plumbed such depth and reached such heights. Still, there’s something to be said for a song that celebrates a mother’s love.
Taken as a whole, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is a classic example of an album that’s more than the sum of its parts. The songs complement each other, and build a pervasive atmosphere of ease and wellbeing — a feeling so persuasive and seductive that even the less significant songs (Take Me to the Mardi Gras, Was a Sunny Day) make a significant contribution. Against this bucolic backdrop, the epic of alienation that is American Tune is all the more powerful. It’s the snake in Eden, the reminder that actually, no, all is not well with the world.
You can listen to There Goes Rhymin’ Simon in two ways. You can hear American Tune as a single dissonant note in the chord, a Yes-But that is pushed aside in light of all those positive vibes; or you can hear American Tune as the reality, and all the other songs as optimistic but ultimately doomed attempts to conceal that harsh and withering reality. It’s to the album’s credit that it sustains both readings.
For myself, I prefer to think that the other nine songs properly convey the substance of how Simon was feeling at the time the album was written and recorded, and that American Tune was a hangover from more cynical days.
At any rate, this was to be the most cheerful Simon would sound for well over a decade. His next three albums would be first wistful, then weary, then finally downright depressed — though each one a towering artistic achievement, each eclipsing the work on Paul Simon and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.
Stay tuned for the details!