Paul Simon: You're The One

NZ Listener

YOU’RE THE ONE, Paul Simon (Warner Bros.)    

Paul Simon has always been an overachiever. In the scarfie days of Simon and Garfunkel, a Simon song had that extra passing chord or internal rhyme to put in a class above his folk contemporaries. Fully-fledged pop standards like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Mrs Robinson” followed, the former challenging “Yesterday” as the ballad to end all ballads, the latter setting a record for its number of studio edits. Inevitably Simon outgrew Art Garfunkel’s harmonies and went on to reach for even higher goals as a solo; artier songs, movies, musicals and world music fusions.

Because Simon has always aimed high, his failures have tended to be conspicuous. Back in the early ‘80s there was his disastrous attempt at a movie, One Trick Pony. More recently there was his abortive Broadway venture, The Capeman.

It’s tempting to hear the relative modesty of You’re The One as Simon’s response to The Capeman’s failure. He appears to have retreated to the safer ground of the singer-songwriter. In fact, this is the first bunch of Simon songs not bound by some bigger idea since Hearts and Bones, way back before the big idea and spectacular success of Graceland.

But don’t be fooled. Simon is still driven to find that sneaky passing chord. If all jazz tunes are based on the changes of “I Got Rhythm” then the bulk of post-60s singer-songwriter efforts can be traced to the chords of “Kumbaya”. Seldom Simon’s, though. On You’re The One he’s still going out of his way to find that twist of melody that hasn’t been heard before. This can produce things of real beauty, such as the album’s opener “That’s Where I Belong”, which scales an intricate melodic staircase into the lofts of Simon’s falsetto. But it can also mean moments of stifling self-awareness. Even when he gets primitive – as he does in borrowing Buddy Holly’s signature guitar lick for “Old” – he’s actually being clever, and doesn’t want you to miss it. “The first time I hear “Peggy Sue” I was twelve years old…” goes the song’s opening line.

Perhaps Simon’s greatest blessing is his rhythmic inquisitiveness. Where most of his post-folkie colleagues have been content to rest on rock ‘n’ roll’s reliable backbeat, Simon has always had a natural affinity for the less predictable polyrhythms of the African diaspora. Listen to Shining Like A National Guitar, his solo hits compilation from earlier this year, and you’ll be surprised what a groovefest it is. That’s not something you could say about The Best of Jackson Browne.

You’re The One didn’t necessitate field trips to Soweto, Rio or New Orleans. Though there are still exotic elements - the percussive licks of guitarist Vincent Nguini, the hollow drone of a bamboo flute - these are absorbed into the mix. The writing, too, sticks closer to home. The narrator is a white male baby-boomer - a New Yorker, naturally - who looks back with regret and forward with anxiety through these songs. “I should have been a musician…” he laments with restrained irony in “Darling Lorraine”, a typically intricate construction that traces the ups and downs of a marriage, all the way to its tragic ending. Elsewhere Simon’s Everyboomer contemplates his own death (“Quiet”), seeks solace in religion (“The Teacher”) and children (“Hurricane Eye”) and finally, faced with the vastness of history, takes some comfort in his own insignificance (“Old”, “Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears”).

You’re The One doesn’t have the revelatory rhythms of Graceland, nor anthems on the scale of “Bridge”. Where those recordings had a universality that took them way beyond Simon’s immediate audience, this one is for, well, people like him. Still, it is both a finicky and fine as anything he’s done. As he once sang, “I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers”, and that still stands. 

Tags: paul simon

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