Paul Simon
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Wednesday Morning 3 AM (1964), 5/10
Sounds Of Silence (1966), 5/10
Parsley Sage Rosemary And Thyme (1966), 6/10
Bookends (1968), 6/10
Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), 7/10
Paul Simon (1972), 6.5/10
There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973), 6.5/10
Hearts And Bones (1983), 6/10
Graceland (1986), 7/10
Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), 6/10
The Rhythm Of the Saints (1990), 6/10
Songs From The Capeman (1997), 5/10
You're the One (1998), 5/10
Surprise (2006), 6/10
So Beautiful or So What (2011), 6/10
Stranger to Stranger (2016), 4/10
Seven Psalms (2023), 4.5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Paul Simon was the poet who best captured the psyche of his generation. While Dylan was the spokesman of the peace marches and the campus sit-ins, Simon represented the average, shy, introverted kid, lonely in his bedroom, distressed by post-puberal sensitivity. Simon did not write angry protest songs, but tender, fragile, ethereal, melancholy odes, notably The Sounds Of Silence (1965), I Am A Rock (1966), Mrs Robinson (1968), Bridge Over Troubled Water (1969), The Boxer (1969). He employed the simplest and most recognizible of vehicles: vocal harmonies and the folk ballad. He fused them in an austere structure that had the magnificent translucence of the madrigal and the motet. On his own, Paul Simon (after breaking up with Art Garfunkel) shifted the emphasis on ethnic music, achieving a sublime fusion of western and African traditions on There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973), Heart And Bones (1983), and Graceland (1986).

(Translated by Ornella C. Grannis)

Paul Simon was the Greenwich Movement poet who better than any other captured the psyche of his generation. Removed from the peace marches and the campus sit-ins, Simon used music to express the sensibility of those who were more emotional and introverted. His songs are tender responses and seem fragile compared to the songs of protest. The autumnal tone of Simon & Garfunkel was the opposite of Dylan's angry and prophetic tone. The students protested in the campuses but at the end of the day they had to contend with the subjective conundrum of post-puberty.

Musically Simon & Garfunkel joined the two white traditions that endured after the war: that of folk singers and that of vocal harmonies. With respect to the folk tradition, Simon & Garfunkel were sweeter and more melodic, closer to the English and Scottish masters. With respect to the vocal harmonies, the duo displayed a clearer and more austere style, almost neoclassical, influenced by renaissance music and medieval motets. Their most immediate influence was the Everly Brothers, but Simon's whispering, almost in falsetto and Art Garfunkel's seraphim harmonizing produced something much more ethereal, even spiritual.

Simon and Garfunkel, neighborhood friends, debuted at 15 in 1957 with the pseudonym Tom and Jerry. They had a small hit, Hey Schoolgirl. They split for several years, during which time Garfunkel studied architecture and Simon made a living selling lyrics. They found each other again in 1962 and in 1964 got a recording contract. They recorded Wednesday Morning 3 AM (Columbia, 1964), a compilation of covers and originals performed only with an acoustic guitar; unfortunately they were considered two more imitators of Dylan.

Thanks to their producer, Tom Wilson, one of the few Afro-American producers, the same man who had "electrified" Dylan, one of their songs bounced to the top of the charts. Wilson had complemented the original acoustic sound with an arrangement of electric guitars, bass and drums (Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Joe Osborn on bass guitar, and three guitarists including Joe South). Thus regenerated, The Sound Of Silence - a denunciation of incommunicability - became the most moving single of 1965. The lyric was an emotional shock for a generation of adolescents violated by the lack of feeling in urban civilization and more than ever needing love: "And the people bowed and prayed/ to the neon god they made/ and the sign flashed out its warning/ ...The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/ and tenement halls/ and whispered in the sound of silence". Simon, who was in England recording Song Book (CBS, 1965), knew nothing of the new arrangement. When he returned, he discovered that he had become famous.

Simon learned his lesson and from that moment on he applied the same procedure to all the songs he composed. In effect the majority of their successive hits were songs that he had originally composed prior to 1965 (or for his English album). In the span of few months Kathy's Song (1965), an idyllic guitar serenade and I Am A Rock (1966), influenced by the sound of Blonde On Blonde, reached the top of the charts.

Simon specialized in tender inspections into the soul of adolescents and also in picturesque miniatures of Americana arranged in a simple manner and sung in muted tones by the two singers. Their music, always at the boundary between fresh graceful poetry and careless pop tune, resorted to images and emotions - whereas Dylan resorted to visions and sermons - to express the malaise of youth.

The idea came at the right moment: their sound, easy and light, satisfied the detachment of the conformists and the existential melancholy of the protesters.

The Sounds Of Silence (Columbia, 1966) contains the hit and part of the material of Song Book, songs written from 1962 to 1965.

Parsley Sage Rosemary And Thyme (Columbia, 1966), still with Hal Blaine on drums and Joe South on guitar, is the first album to show an artistic personality. Scarborough Fair opens the album with its delicate interlacing of vocalizations over a humble, tinkling accompaniment by harpsichord, triangles and guitar (a masterpiece of production, due to the first eight-track recorder). For Emily, a simple experiment with brilliant rhythms, gives free play to Simon's romanticism. Homeward Bound fuses pop music with the country of the prairies. Dangling Conversation, A Poem On The Underground Wall and Patterns are conscious social frescoes. None of these songs can compete with the hits of the year before, but side by side they are a small testament to Simon's spirituality.

Mrs. Robinson, a catchy refrain of energetic guitar rhythms coupled with Hal Blaine's drumming established the generational prestige of the duo. It is also the soundtrack of Mike Nichols' movie "The Graduate", the story of a marginalized young man in search of love, a story in which tens of millions of young men recognized themselves. America, underlined by the soothing refrain of the organ, is a more complex song that culminates with an emphatic, symphonic finale. They are the support columns of the album Bookends (Columbia, 1968), recorded with Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on keyboards, that also includes sophisticated tunes such as Fakin' It, A Hazy Shade Of Winter, At The Zoo, and proved the ambitions of the duo in studio production (particularly the vocal overdubs).

With regard to the arrangements, the peak was reached with the orchestral gospel in crescendo in Bridge Over Troubled Waters (1969), a production tour de force (thanks to a 16-track recorder), derived from the Swan Silvertones' gospel song Mary Don't You Weep (1955), formed by four West Virginia miners in 1938 and converted to a melodic format Mary Don't You Weep (1955), that anchored the best selling album of all time (nine million copies sold). The album (with Blaine on drums) includes the psychedelic soul of The Boxer (one of the first songs recorded on sixteen tracks) - with Renaissance trumpet, percussive effects that emphasize the refrain and a cosmic grand finale for string orchestra; the Andean folk with flutes and Latin sound of El Condor Pasa; and the party-oriented soul of Cecilia, the epitome of Simon's rhythmic experimentations (xylophone, hand clapping, foot stomping, bass drum), all pieces that had little in common with folk and rock of those years. Simon & Garfunkel's songs had become famous thanks to their melodies, but, in reality, they parted from the rest of rock and folk music mainly because of the elegant, intricate and sophisticate sound that the duo crafted in the studio.

Greatest Hits (CBS, 1972) is a compilation of all the hits.

When Simon and Garfunkel split it was almost a tragedy for those who had grown accustomed to their characterization of the turmoil of adolescence. Simon had two features that made him the natural interpreter of juvenile alienation: a poetic flair for solitude and the ability to put tender melancholy to music. The fervent populism and the sober fatalism of his confessions touched the heart of good and bad alike, as universal prayers do. Nobody could capture the spirit of the average American youth as Paul Simon did in those days.

Paul Simon was the soul of the duo. He was "the sound of silence" that nurtured the dreams and dried the tears of an entire generation. Throughout his solo career, starting with the 1972 album Paul Simon, an eclectic and depressed LP, Simon continued to explore the introspective easy-listening format. Casting off the fetters of folk and vocal harmonizing, Simon concentrated on what had always attracted him: exotic rhythms and melodies. Indeed, a lot of his successful songs with Simon and Garfunkel had already been influenced by the rhythms of the third world. His solo work simply allowed him to better pursue that inclination.

The first album features the reggae of Mother And Child Reunion and the salsa of Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, while the jubilee of Loves Me Like A Rock, the blues of St Judy's Comet, the solemn American Tune and the saloon ragtime of Kodachrome embellish the eclectic There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Columbia, 1973), de facto an album of black music.

With Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), the masterly style of his arrangements borders narcissism through the production of tunes that resemble a stage play, such as Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover.

In 1980 Simon wrote the screenplay and starred in One Trick Pony, which produced the hit Late In The Evening. In 1981 he and Garfunkel hosted an free concert in Central Park, New York City, for an audience of 500,000 people. Simon's alter egos - the musicologist of exotic folklore, the innocent, dreamy teenager, the reporter of human tragedies - found a fascinating balance in Hearts And Bones (1983), a sophisticated, mature album that that entrusts itself to avant guard scores (Late Great Johnny Ace) as well as anachronistic doo-wop (Rene And Georgette Magritte). It's an album that seals twenty years of unorthodox research with gracious and discreet ballads such as Song About The Moon and Train In The Distance.

Hearts And Bones, Simon's least successful and most criticized album yet, despite containing Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War, was the prelude to the African-tinged Graceland (1986), a cycle of touching and compassionate songs that established him for good among the great composers of music without boundaries. The vivid imagery of Boy In The Bubble, a broken-hearted pilgrimage among the ruins of humanity, accompanied with wavering accordion, martial drums and angelic choir, ranks among his masterpieces. His spiritual testament, instead, is to be found in the metaphysical vision of Graceland, a breezy, luminous, pulsating prayer of redemption that bridges country and gospel music. Simon seems to wander in an imaginary past: the frantic cajun-bluegrass rigmarole of Gumboots, the Coasters-like sax-driven swirling novelty That Was Your Mother, the mournful vocal harmonies of Homeless, have the "feeling" of nostalgy, although their sound has never existed before. He has the uncanny ability to artifically permeate a songs with that gentle, tender, moving feeling of sentimental old things. The jungle groove and the catchy refrain of You Can Call Me Al even suit the discos. Even when western and African arrangements collide (I Know What I Know) or don't quite blend (the peppy fanfare of Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes), Simon creates a new world of sounds by grafting his sparse, gentle, melodic folk-rock onto the funk jive of South Africa's traditional music.

Negotiations (CBS, 1988) is an anthology.

In the course of twenty years Paul Simon has established himself as one of the most accomplished and sophisticated songwriters, able to condense, in a few verses, simple but universal emotions by giving them, at once, a transcendental and prophetic aura. His are not songs, they are biblical parables. When his dialectic married sonic elements of other cultures, those parables became more serious.

The delicate urban introspection, the humble but profound vignettes of daily life, the stirring expressions of humane dismay, all have in common an intense sense of compassion for the personal and public tragedies of humanity.

The Rhythm Of the Saints (CBS, 1990) does to Brazilian music what Graceland did to African music: it takes the rhythm, it turns it into a cultural icon, and it grafts that icon into the stem of simple rock and folk songs. Simon's simple and naive spirit redeems the pagan, ritual, primitive nature of the rhythm, and views the universal message of the civilization that produced it with the eyes of a Christian prophet. As with Graceland, the rhythms pre-existed the songs. Simon spent two years assembling his repertory of rhythms before committing the stories to them. The hypnotic grooves of Obvious Child are the essence of the album. Can't Run But, Spirit Voices and Further To Fly populate the rhythm of sound effects and words, but can't escape the logic of a music that was born as a rhythm. Simon also fails to deliver the touching requiem for poverty that is certainly in his heart: dirges such as Born At The Right Time sound artificial where the stream of consciousness of Boy In The Bubble truly felt like a cry for a lost eden. This is a miracle of production, but not a miracle of inspiration.

In August 1991, Paul Simon managed to break all records for a live concert: 750,000 people showed up to hear him sing.

Songs From The Capeman (Warner, 1997) was Simon's first Broadway musical (the score mainly harks back to the 1950s).

You're the One (Warner, 1998) abandons his ambitious third-world program, and returns Simon to simple, humble, domestic themes such as Darling Lorraine.

After an eight-year hiatus, Simon released Surprise (2006) that replaced the traditional Simon pan-ethnic arrangements with producer Brian Eno's busy, multi-layered textures (something similar to what Eno did for David Bowie in the 1970s). However, the overall tone was one of calm, pensive, domestic rumination, almost the opposite of the vigorous, aching, internationalism of the past (Another Galaxy).

Paul Simon's music had always been "geographic" in that it evoked places around the world, fueled by a constant sense of distance, and also geographic in the sense that it mapped the emotional, existential territory of his era. This was true at an even higher degree on So Beautiful or So What (Universal, 2011), a humble fresco with philosophical overtones that roamed from Africa (The Afterlife) to India (Dazzling Blue), from country (Love Is Eternal Sacred Light) to pop (Love and Hard Times).

It is hard to salvage anything from Stranger to Stranger (2016), a collection of songs that sound like leftovers. Cool Papa Bell has echoes of the real Paul Simon.

In the Blue Light (2018) revisits old songs, mostly from his worst album, You're the One, with stellar musicians like Bill Frisell and Wynton Marsalis.

Seven Psalms (2023), released when he was 81, contains a single 33-minute composition in seven movements. The first psalm, The Lord, evokes both austere prog-rock singer-songwriters of the 1970s like John Martyn and the pensive folkish beginning of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. The Sacred Harp Wait The minimal instrumentation doesn't help these song take off, and makes all of them sound verbose. They remain in a sort of quiet trance and the lyrics almost ruin the trance. The bluesy and gospel-y My Professional Opinion is the most musical piece. The biggest problem is that all the melodies sound "dejavu", evoking dejected dirges from the 1960s and 1970s. The whiny second psalm Love is like a Braid and the dirge-y Your Forgiveness could have been on countless albums of early Neil Young or Leonard Cohen (but they would have made them better). The Indian-esque Trail of Volcanoes sounds like a slow-motion version of the Rolling Stones' Paint it Black.

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