Paul Simon

Last time out, he stepped onstage and fell into the orchestra pit: Songs from The Capeman, in which Simon played tough-guy dress-up for the Broadway crowd while adopting the cause of an unrepentant murderer, left a nasty taste in the mouths of even the die-hards, who still love the old man like a rock, even as he sank like a stone. Simon just wanted to pen a love letter to his 1950s childhood, to the doo-wop songs that clog the 58-year-old singer-songwriter's arteries, but he so bungled the chore he managed to alienate and offend--astonishing, given a tasteful, tuneful discography that still gets English-lit majors all wet and weepy. The Capeman closed before it ever opened, leaving Simon to wrestle with the first major failure of his till-then blessed career. Actually, it was his second letdown: Hearts and Bones, released in 1983, ranks as Simon's worst-selling album, despite its rep as his best among the true believers--who happen to be right on this one. Unappreciated in its day, that record has become his Pet Sounds, his unloved and unwanted soft-pop masterpiece discussed in hushed, loving tones by those who discovered it in the cutout bins long after Warners had given it up for dead.

Nice to see, then, that Simon's picked up where he left off after the profitable, if not mostly pleasurable, detours into Afropop; I appreciate Graceland and a little of The Rhythm of the Saints as much as the next college graduate, but a little goes a very long way. You're the One, likely to sell well only to those old farts who think Napster refers to their no-good sons, finds Simon back to basics, even if he still can't shake that mbaqanga fetish. Like Hearts and Bones, on which he laid bare the best and worst of his failed marriage to Carrie Fisher as he struggled to come to terms with his 40th birthday, the new disc presents Simon at his most pained and personal. (It's also something of a career retrospective: The band features guitarist Vincent Nguini, a Rhythm of the Saints vet, and drummer Steve Gadd, who first played with Simon in 1975.) At first blush, the disc actually seems like a piffle, laconic adult-contemporary "world"-pop better suited for elevators and vacations; it glides by the first or fifth time you listen to it, like something soft whispering in the distance. But the lightness and sweetness deceives; it invites, then betrays.

"Somewhere, in a burst of glory/A sound becomes a song," he sighs at the outset, "I'm bound to tell a story/That's where I belong." It's as though Simon is reminding us, if not himself, of what he does best: telling his own tales instead of borrowing them from others. It's a refrain that reappears toward the end of the disc, on a jaunty song titled "Hurricane Eye," in which he adopts the voice of children begging an old man to "tell us a story about how it used to be/Make it up and write it down just like history." Perhaps it's the result of being a father to three children younger than 7 (he has two sons and a daughter with Edie Brickell, his wife of seven years), but Simon has returned to the sad, contemplative state of Hearts and Bones. He sees in his kids' fresh faces his own fading youth, and it has prompted in him a desire to find his own place in world that, perhaps, has left him behind (or vice versa).

In "Old," he recalls the first time he heard "Peggy Sue" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and laments how they've turned into echoes replaced by birthday parties and the cries of friends who tell him, "Man, you're getting old." He sings of bickering beloveds in the six-plus-minute-long "Darling Lorraine," in which a couple falls in love, grows old and apart ("I don't need you, darling Lorraine"), only to watch each other fall to pieces at the end: "Her hands like wood/The doctor was smiling/But the news wasn't good." The latter recalls 1983's "Rene and Georgette Margate with Their Dog After the War," in which a couple falls asleep to the strains of the Moonglows and awakens wondering where the decades have gone. Both songs are farewells to the promise of youth, to those long-gone moments when you felt invincible and everything seemed possible--only to discover everything falls apart sooner or later, when promise turns into your what-if past.

Every now and then, the record sinks into overwrought melodrama: "The Teacher," with its bang-a-gong intro and lyrics about a "teacher of great renown whose words were like tablets of stone," is ostensibly a cautionary tale about cult leaders and their sheep--though it could just as easily be a song about singer-songwriters and their blind-faith fans. And there's only so far you can go with a song titled "Love," which can, ya know, make ya feel good when it's not making you feel, ya know, bad. But just when you're ready to tune out and turn in, Simon ends his 11-song cycle (complete with a children's song, "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves," which sounds as though it's on loan from Randy Newman) with a somber and perfectly lovely lullaby, in which a old man looks forward to the inevitable silence--the warm solitude, "peace without illusions." The song is, simply, about a man reconciling ambition with execution: He wants to be great but knows that's no longer important; soon enough, he will be finished and forgotten. All that matters is you give a damn, try your best, and hope like hell someone notices before the inevitable finale. "When they say you're not good enough," Simon sings, as though at the bottom of a well, "well, the answer is you're not."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky