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Music Review: Paul Simon – Songwriter

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In celebration of Paul Simon’s 70th birthday on October 13, Sony/Legacy is releasing Songwriter, a two disc set of 32 songs spanning the composer’s fabled career from the sixties to the present. The songs on the album were chosen by Simon himself, and although they include a number of his most famous pieces, this is not a greatest hits collection. Tom Moon, in the liner notes, contends that the album “features commercial landmarks alongside ambitious and often criminally under-appreciated compositions.” Now this may be something of an overstatement, but it does, as Moon goes on to explain, allow Simon the opportunity to highlight some of his lesser known songs, songs that are sometimes “overlooked.” Whether this will make up for the omission of a ton of fan favorites is problematic.

Disc one, which contains most of the “hits” that Simon decided to include, begins with “The Sound of Silence” from a live 2011 performance where Simon plays some interesting harmonic games with the melody. It is a clear indication that this is not going to be a simple recycling of material. There is, of course, no Garfunkel, and that is unfortunate. This is followed by “The Boxer” from the live concert in Central Park and Aretha Franklin’s soulful cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the only cover on the album. Other classics included in the collection are “Mother and Child Reunion,” “American Tune,” “Kodachrome,” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.” The first disc ends with three songs from Simon’s African collaboration “Graceland,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and “The Boy in the Bubble.” I would have put in a word for “The Myth of Fingerprints,” but I suppose a third and fourth disc would have been necessary for all the songs I would have wanted.

The second disc begins with four songs from The Rhythm of the Saints, highlighted by the much praised “Spirit Voices” with its Portuguese interpolation by Milton Nascimento. There are a couple of songs from Simon’s ill-fated Broadway venture The Capeman. If the music represented here–the dramatic “Born in Puerto Rico” and the doo wop throwback, “Quality”–is any indication, one has to wonder why the show didn’t do better. The album ends with selections from his 2011 release So Beautiful or So What including the title song. If the music on this disc is not as well known, it is nonetheless indicative of the composer’s range and the continued variety of his interests.

Tom Moon’s liner notes provide a lucid critical evaluation of Simon’s work. He talks about the composer’s lyric brilliance, emphasizing his sense of humor. He stresses the composer’s eclectic musical passions. “Simon’s songbook,” he suggests, “can be appreciated as the journey of a restless songwriter searching for new ways to communicate, driven toward new musical settings for his ideas.” Simon has never been one to keep repeating his successes. No doubt he could have kept turning out the kind of music that made the duet’s name a household word back in the sixties, but that is not the way of the true artist. The true artist is always looking to exceed his grasp.  Paul Simon is that true artist.

Songwriter, with its classic songs and its new works that may yet become classic, is simply one more demonstration of that fact. Certainly there will be those that object to this or that inclusion at the expense of this or that omission;  but the more one listens to the newer pieces, the more familiar they become,  andthe more likely those objections will disappear.

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About Jack Goodstein