I mentioned a few weeks ago that in the wake of Prince passing away, many people have begun to refer to 2016 as “the year that music died.” Taken literally, this statement is blatantly untrue— composers and musicians have been dying willy-nilly since the dawn of time, but music has persisted as the eternal flame that it is. However, I’ll clarify that the writers and bloggers who have used this phrase do not mean that music is literally dead, but that because icons such as Prince, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and others have died this year, music has suffered a massive, perhaps irrecoverable blow. This too is false. Not only are there many present-day musical giants who released music this year (e.g. Beyonce, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Esperanza Spalding, etc.), but there are numerous legendary musical icons from decades past still alive and performing (e.g. Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and somehow Kieth Richards). And furthermore, Paul Simon, a national treasure at age 74, is set to release his twelfth solo studio album tomorrow.
I admit I’ve been listening to a lot of Paul Simon this past week because his music has been the perfect soundtrack to a recent heartbreak. I’m not looking for pity from anyone— I appreciate your sympathy if you lend it to me, but unfortunately it is not going to make me feel better. For the only thing that can mend a broken heart is time… and Paul Simon. With music and art, we get to redeem our shortcomings, failures, and struggles by turning them into something beautiful to look at or listen to, and Paul Simon is an undeniable master of this alchemy. From brutal honesty (“oooh spare your heart, sooner or later everything put together falls apart”), to sincere pleading (“You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty”), to empowerment (“Just slip out the back Jack, make a new plan Stan, you don’t need to be coy Roy, just get yourself free”), to self-deprecation (“She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright— alright in a sort of limited way for an off night”), Paul Simon has lyrically diagnosed every angle of romantic struggle.
He has also prescribed the cure: “Take your burdens to the Mardi Gras, let the music wash your soul.” The music is primary. It is not the words that wash our soul, it is the music. Simon certainly writes beautiful lyrics, but he knows that these would never reach our ears or move our souls were they not supported by amazing music. He even said in an interview with American Songwriter that he always writes the music before the lyrics. Above all Paul Simon is a supreme lover of music and his frequent excursions into diverse musical styles (traditional folk, blues, gospel, zydeco, South African music, synth-pop, etc…) clearly represents this fact.
Because he is an adept guitarist and brilliant singer-songwriter, Paul Simon likely would have had a wonderful musical career even if he had never chosen to collaborate with anyone. Yet a large part of his genius is in surrounding himself with musicians who are as good or better than himself. An incomplete list of his collaborators includes some of the most skilled musicians in the world: The Jessy Dixon Singers, Urubamba, Steve Gadd, Airto Moreira, Dean Parks, Phillip Glass, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and oh yeah Art Garfunkel. To listen to a Paul Simon album is quite simply to listen to good music.
Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some musical artists and fans have a major problem Paul Simon. Simon has been accused of plagiarizing British folk music, not properly crediting the South African musicians he recorded with on the album Graceland, and outright stealing a song from the band Los Lobos. I am not here to argue for or against Paul Simon’s innocence in these matters. I mention these things in order to point out that I am not romanticizing Paul Simon the person— I think he, like all of us, has insecurities and demons and has not always acted in the most equitable way. No, I am here praising Paul Simon the musician. Whatever Simon’s personal flaws or misdeeds may be, they do not take away from the amazing musical gifts he has given the world. The fact is, Paul Simon has impeccable musical taste, painfully clever lyrics, brilliant collaborators, and one of the creamiest voices of all time. I can’t wait to hear what he gives us tomorrow.
For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!