Paul Simon's long and manicky struggle between his songs of endearing but forced whimsy and his confessions of unhappiness and loneliness is over, with the latter, in fully developed and radically different form, the victor. Simon's first solo album is also his least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far — this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme.
By contrast to the recent prototype for confessional work, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Simon maintains his artistic distance as he evinces a continuing commitment to art as something at least one step removed from the artist. Simon's music, rather than abounding in blatant and obvious attempts at expressing the soul, serves as a continually ironic counterpoint to the emotions, ideas, images and feelings expressed by the lyrics. In Lennon's work, the listener was inevitably pulled in; in Simon's he remains on the outside and, by Simon's lights, intentionally so, as he forces us to look at them without ever forcing us to identify.
On Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Simon offered "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her," the fantasy image of a perfect love that could save him from emptiness and despair. At the end of Paul Simon (Columbia KC 30750) we are offered "Congratulations," an eloquent, direct simple song which says: "I'm hungry for learning/Won't you answer me please/Can a man a woman/Live together in peace."
On Paul Simon there is no more a dream of Emily but only the question: could such a thing exist and, if so, why hasn't the song's composer found it? The crushing, exhilarating emotive quality of Plastic Ono Band came from the fact that mixed with all the pain, Lennon had found what he took to be an answer. For every expression of despair over his past, he had one of optimism for the future. Simon keeps looking back at his shattered illusions only to return to the present with a question that can't be answered in the affirmative — for if it could, there would be no need to ask it.
Paul Simon leaves its composer's psyche finally exposed, as the various veneers he has used in the past to protect himself have receded into the background. The notion of pain, loss, despair, instability and self-destruction that recur endlessly on this album are matched in imagery with the constant reference to the self as a boy, with its implication that with all the growing Simon has done, it hasn't been enough. Even in "Duncan," where the singer does find happiness for the moment, he describes it with the self-degrading line that"... just like a dog I was befriended."
At the same time that the themes of the lyricist have been reduced to their bare minimum, the elaborate production that characterized all of Simon and Garfunkel's albums except their first has been substantially reduced. Simon has always been the kind of artist who, like Joni Mitchell, can make a vocal solo with guitar accompaniment sound like a complete production job when recorded. This album is certainly no less produced than any of its predecessors, but the use of simple trio and quartet accompaniment, with occasional support from some rather novel and eccentric horn arrangements, is closer to a bare minimum than to the grandiose elaboration of Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Melodically there is a similarly reductive process at work, so that with one or two notable exceptions, the tunes on the album are not only unhummable but often deliberately arid and endistancing. In "The Only Living Boy in New York," when Simon wanted to describe his sadness at what appears to be Garfunkel's leaving for Mexico to work on a film, he did it with a lush, gorgeous melody and beautifully arranged instruments and harmonies; now, he shapes many songs around bluestinged lines that keep his melodies from ever turning into pure prettiness.
At a more general level, the formal basis of Simon's compositions has changed drastically. In the past he varied his approach between vignette songs ("Richard Cory" and "Poem on the Underground Wall"), songs of fantasy and philosophy ("Sounds of Silence" and "EI Condor Pasa"), songs of an explicitly personal or confessional nature ("I Am a Rock" and "Fakin' It"), and whimsical songs ("The 59th Street Bridge Song" and "Baby Driver"). On the new album there is less variety than ever before, and even when Simon uses non-confessional forms the confessional intent behind them is more transparent than ever.
For example, "Duncan," an expertly rendered vignette, is similar in pace, mood, and even points to the earlier "Boxer," but its autobiographical content — from an emotional point of view — is far more explicit than the earlier work, both in the song itself and its very direct and simple production. Similarly, the enjoyable whimsy of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" seems almost deliberately a flatter kind of whimsy than Simon has done in the past. While the song has some funny moments, there is none of that straining for comic effect that occasionally marred earlier such efforts.
More importantly, Simon's earlier philosophical concern with society as an entity unto itself is now dealt with in two songs whose main point seems to be that involvement inevitably explodes back in one's face, forcing one to rethink and refeel his problems as an individual. Specifically, "Armistice Day" announces in typically understated fashion that Simon is "weary from waiting in Washington D.C.," and that "I've waited about all I can." In the song's last line he announces that his patience is exhausted, and the singer leaves. The whole thing is set to one of the more eccentric arrangements of the album, which makes use of horns layered on top of a very incomplete rhythm section — a sort of train-like effect. It is not completely successful, especially in comparison to "Peace Like A River," one of the album's highlights both lyrically and musically. That song is at least in part a variation on "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," which Simon and Garfunkel recorded on Wednesday Morning, 3AM. Here the dream has turned into a nightmare of pain. Over some of the most beautiful music on the album Simon sings the seemingly incongruous lines, which any other writer would have handled to the accompaniment of a rock band blasting:
You can beat us with wires
You can beat us with chains
You can run out your rules
But you know you can't dream the history train
I've seen a glorious day
The singer then wakes up, realizes there is nothing to be done at that moment, and finds he has "nowhere to go but back to sleep." This wrenching and perfectly executed cut thus seems to be a dismissal: so much for worrying about the fate of political man on this album.
"Papa Hobo," "Hobo's Blues" and "Paranoia Blues," three songs that appear consecutively in the middle of side two, define a sense of instability gradually growing into full scale paranoia, which is a sort of thematic corollary to the album's general mood of depression. The first of these, which, along with "Duncan," "Run That Body Down," "Me and Julio," make references to the singer as a boy, is about growing up absurd in Detroit, having nothing to do, no place to go, and leaving. The ugliness of the images — "I've been sweeping up the tips I made/I been living on Gatorade — are paired with one of the album's many relaxed, almost pretty tunes. "Hobo's Blues," a brief instrumental interlude, is nothing more than an enchanting piece of traveling music, which puts the singer down in New York where the incipient fear of Detroit in the earlier song becomes a full scale case of inability to cope with modern city living. "Paranoia Blues" with its parody of white blues and its Lennon-style early rock 'n' roll sounding echo is incredibly blunt and cynical at the same time. Its unrelenting tone finally recedes in the face of the album's musically mellow, lyrically overpowering conclusion, "Congratulations."
"Congratulations," "Everything Put Together Falls Apart," "Run That Body Down" and "Mother and Child Reunion" are the thematic nucleus of the album and in many ways the measure of Simon's real accomplishments. The title of "Everything Put Together Falls Apart" embodies and states the theme of this album and then over an almost "Scotch and Soda" like piece of loungy balladry, Simon offers his autobiographical observations about the state of the soul of both himself and the environment. "Taking downs to get off to sleep/And ups to start on your way," leading to the advice to "spare your heart" and finally that everything including the mind and body put together "sooner or later falls apart." Simon ends the song with a warning to the listener, but as "Run That Body Down," the following cut, opens it is Simon who is receiving the warning. He takes it, passes it onto his wife, and then finally offers it up as a generalized piece of hard won wisdom:
Kid, you better look around
How long you think you can
Run that body down?
How many nights you think that you can
Do what you been doin'
Now, who you foolin'
The cut features a brilliantly moody guitar solo from Jerry Hahn, one of the few instances on the album where the music is set on its own for any length of time.
It is finally in this album's book-ends, "Mother And Child Reunion" and "Congratulations," that Simon achieves his only but inevitably complete statements about the feelings he is so on edge about. "Mother and Child Reunion" is the album's best piece of music, sung exquisitely by what sounds like a genuinely liberated Paul Simon to the incredibly energetic accompaniment of a re