After the break-up of Simon and Garfunkel, following 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Art Garfunkel went into acting and schoolteaching for three years before resuming his singing career with a series of solo albums that most have considered rather bland. (That verdict seems supported by my experience of Breakaway (1975), but since that’s the only album of his that I know, I’m not really qualified to offer an opinion on whether it’s generally justified.)
But everyone knew that the real talent in S&G lay with S., Mr. Paul Simon — the writer of all their songs, the crafter of what are widely recognised as some of the best lyrics in popular music, and (what is less often realised) an outstanding guitarist. He was always going to continue as a musician, and there was every reason to expect his solo albums to be as good as those he’d recorded with Garfunkel.
In the event, they turned out to be surprisingly different from the earlier work: musically more complex, varied and ambitious, and offering a rich palette of textures and timbres far more experimental than might have been expected from someone who until then had been thought of primarily as a folk singer.
His first solo album, self-titled, emerged in 1972. [Listen on Grooveshark.] Its eleven songs included reggae, folk, pop, jazz, blues and songs that don’t really fit any category. Although uneven in quality, it set out a stall for what Simon was aiming to achieve, and gave an impression that the shackles were off in the post-Garfunkel era.
When Peter Gabriel left Genesis, the remaining members continued to produce music that was (at least at first) as good as they had made with him, and he went on to create some superb solo albums. So everyone won. In contrast, when Roger Waters left Pink Floyd, the remaining members went on to record two albums that shimmer with professionalism but lack heart, while Waters’ solo offerings were fascinating but hard to listen to. So here, the sum of the parts was much less than the whole. Different from both of these, the breakup of Simon and Garfunkel was wholly asymmetric, with one member going on to greater and better things while the other achieved much less than previously. The first Paul Simon solo album basically demonstrates that Garfunkel had been holding him back artistically.
Mother and Child Reunion kicks the album off with what is usually described as the first reggae track by a white artist — although truth to tell this is not exactly Bob Marley, and the “reggae” influence is really restricted to a gentle emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar. Although the lyrics (“strange and mournful day”) hint at the theme of a death in the family, the title was famously inspired by a Chinese dish of chicken and eggs.
For reasons I’ve never really understood, this track is often considered a highlight of the album. The lyrics don’t rise far beyond the level of platitudes, and the song is harmonically very simple, never moving outside the I-IV-V chords of the key of G beyond a couple of relative minors. Perhaps its quality is inflated in the eyes of critics because of the pioneering use of reggae ideas. The most I can say about it is what a friend of mine memorably said when asked to critique some poetry: that it is passes the time painlessly enough. An inauspicious start to an album that offers much more.
Duncan, the second track, is much better. Harmonically it is not much richer than Mother and Child Reunion, though its simple Em I-IV-V tonality is leavened by the occasional passing A major chord. The song structure is simplicity itself — just six verses on the same tune, punctuated by the occasional instrumental bridge. But the lyric is packed with resonant and evocative phrases: consider for example the opening word-picture:
Couple in the next room are bound to win a prize
They’ve been going at it all night long
I’m trying to get some sleep, but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name, and here’s my song.
Bam, it’s all there in just forty words: a rock-solid sense of place, of tone, of people, even a statement of what kind of song to expect. There is a weariness to those lines, and in their delivery, that will be a recurring theme through the album.
Duncan also benefits from unusual instrumentation: the lead in the instrumental bridges is taken by a pair of South American flutes, played by Los Incas, who had previously contributed the accompaniment to Simon and Garfunkel’s rather pointless El Condor Pasa. Here, they lend a distinctive flavour that seems strangely appropriate to the story.
Everything Put Together Falls Apart is about as different from Duncan as a song can be. Half the length, at less than two minutes; lyrically intimate and confessional rather than narrative; gentle and meditative in the arrangement; and harmonically sophisticated to a degree that defies analysis, at least by me.
The instrumentation is very sparse, which serves the song perfectly. Mostly it’s just Simon’s own acoustic guitar accompaniment; for the second verse an electric piano glides gently in to the background, then a hint of accordion, as the song winds to its downbeat conclusion: “but when it’s done, and the police come, and they lay you down for dead / Just remember what I said”. A wistful little masterpiece, and very much a continuation of the theme of weariness.
Run That Body Down is a contradiction — a pleasant, cheerful little song about low-grade illness and a warning about unhealthy lifestyles: “Paul, you’d better look around / How long do you think that you can run that body down? How many nights you think that you can do what you’ve been doing? / Who’re you fooling?” Despite the downbeat message, the song ambles along with an amiable trudge, and finishes on a thoughtful, restrained guitar solo leading into the final chorus.
Side 1 (remember sides?) ends with Armistice Day, a complex little number that feels like the marriage of two more or less unrelated songs. In the first half, effortlessly brilliant soloistic acoustic guitar accompanies an oblique lyric that seems to be contrasting public displays of patriotism with the more intimate kind of support that the singer really needs: “No long drawn blown out excuses were made / When I needed a friend she was there / Just like an easy chair”. This segues into a second half that moves more urgently, with an electric guitar and some kind of keyboard — a harmonium? — joining in a lament on the state of modern democracy. Again, the theme of weariness is explicitly stated: “I’m weary from waiting in Washington D.C. / I’m coming to see my congressman, but he’s avoiding me”. This slips back into the guitar style of the first half, though now accompanied by light percussion, for an ending that ties the song together.
Simon’s interpretation of his lyrics seems to invite more questions than answers. The song begins “On Armistice Day, the Philharmonic will play / But the songs that we sing will be sad / Shuffling brown tunes / Hanging around”. What exactly is meant by describing the sad songs as “shuffling brown tunes”? I can’t explain it; but I can feel it. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a good lyric, or because Simon’s singing sells it. Either way, it works — not just as an evocation of a mood, but as a analysis of the album itself.
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard opens the second side with a bang — it’s all leaping guitars, flamboyant rhythms and rhymes, doubled acoustic guitars and strange backing instruments wandering in and out of the soundscape. The rhyming is so effortless that evidently a great deal of effort must have gone into it:
The mama looks down and spit on the ground
Every time my name gets mentioned
The papa says, “Oy, if I get that boy,
I’m gonna stick him in the house of detention
And better still:
In a couple of days they come and take me away
But the press let the story leak
When the radical priest come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek.
All the internal rhymes ought to make it seem too clever for the story it’s telling, but somehow they don’t: the song feels light, propulsive and unmannered throughout. It richly deserves it classic status.
And so we come to my personal highlight, Peace like a River. I couldn’t really explain why, but there’s something about this song that reminds me powerfully of my university days (Warwick, pure maths with computer science, 1986-1990, since you asked)
“Long past the midnight curfew we sat starry-eyed / Ah, we were satisfied”, Simon sings; and later on, “Four in the morning, I woke up from out of my dreams / Nowhere to go but back to sleep / But I’m reconciled: I’m gonna be up for a while.” So far, so lots-of-late-night-talking-with-friends. But the middle third of the songs wanders off in a mildly hallucinatory daze and lands up somewhere completely different: “You can beat us with wires / You can beat us with chains / You can run lots of rules but you know you can’t outrun the history train / I’ve seen a glorious day”. What is he referring to here? The civil rights struggle, perhaps? But this is a case where keeping it vague pays off: there is something universal about the sense of a struggle, bookended by the comradeship of talking into the small hours about everything and nothing.
This is another song where the acoustic guitar playing is nothing short of sensational, and contributes hugely to the success of the song. As fragile and allusive as the lyric, it provides a perfect complement, similarly wandering between the simple and complex, sometimes seeming to stroll unhuriedly around the chord before landing on it or maybe just pointing to it and then going somewhere else. Quite brilliant.
Papa Hobo is a wistful account of Detroit life — hate the pollution, love the hockey team. Although the ubiquitous acoustic guitar is present on this song, it’s overshadowed by some species of organ, and the rarely heard bass harmonica. It briefly seems in danger of uncritically portraying an idealised version of a drifter’s life, but then winds down enigmatically with the observation that “It’s just after breakfast, I’m in the road, and the weather man lied”. And then straight into:
Hobo’s Blues is a surprise: a brief (1 minute 21) instrumental violin solo, played by Stephane Grappelli, over Simon’s guitar backing. It dances through three choruses in as carefree a manner as you could wish to hear, the guitar sliding through some sophisticated blues changes as the violin becomes progressively more liberated. Instrumentals can feel like filler, but this one doesn’t — partly because it’s over too soon to outstay its welcome, but mostly just because it’s so enjoyable.
(Ironically, given that I am more of a singer than a guitarist, Hobo’s Blues is the only track from this album that I’ve performed at the folk club — with my wife playing the violin part on flute. It went down very well.)
Paranoia Blues is a bit of a curiosity, and not one that really works for me. It’s an inelegant, shambling blues, which uncharacterstically lingers for a long time on the key chord of E. Lyrically, it’s a selection of the frustrations of New York life, with the chorus: “I’ve got the paranoia blues from knocking around in New York City / Where they roll you for a nickel, and stick you for the extra dime”. It’s OK, but doesn’t move me.
And finally, the album ends on the weariest slow blues-ballad you’re ever likely to hear, Congratulations. The song rests mostly on electric piano, with a vocal that sounds almost as though it has to be wrung out of the singer. “So many people slipping away / And many more waiting in line in the courtrooms today” is not an optimistic view of the world, and seems at odds with his married state at the time of writing and recording the album. (He was married to Peggy Harper from 1969 till 1975.) The album’s very last line is the plaintive question, “Can’t a man and a woman live together in peace?”
What to make of this album? It’s a much smaller and more intimate affair than Bridge Over Troubled Water, but as noted above, nevertheless more ambitious than that offering. Recorded at a time when Simon could have been expected to be happy in his personal life, it’s nevertheless a rather gloomy album, and it’s hard not to read songs like Everything Put Together Falls Apart and Congratulations as at least partly autobiographical — not to mention Run That Body Down, which mentions both Paul and his wife Peg by name. At the same time, the dopey, carefree feel of Run That Body Down in particular seems to contradict the words, and there are lots of light, cheerful moments.
In fact, the album is contradictory and enigmatic from start to end: despite the pervasive sense of weariness (which was to be so emphatically reversed in 1973’s There Goes Rhyming Simon), there is nevertheless a warmth to many of the songs — even the “Love is not a game / Love is not as toy” section of Congratulations, cynical as the words may be, has something gentle and even compassionate about the music that accompanies it.
It’s tempting to read the negativity in many of the lyrics as revealing an unhappiness in Simon’s marriage. But I don’t necessarily buy that: I think it’s more likely that Simon prefers to write in universals, and finds negative themes more resonant than positive ones. Another aspect is that, while most songwriters will seek to home in on a specific experience or emotion, Simon is more inclined to try to capture the whole experience of a certain phase of life — good and bad together, some represented in music and some in words.
Ultimately, while Paul Simon may not be a great album, it’s a very good one, and a pointer towards the better things to come.