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Paul Simon

      Paul Simon (Warner Bros., 1972)
     There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Warner Bros., 1973)
      Still Crazy After All These Years (Warner Bros., 1975)
      Greatest Hits, Etc. (Warner Bros., 1977)
   One Trick Pony (Warner Bros., 1980)
     Hearts and Bones (Warner Bros., 1983)
      Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986)
   The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros., 1990)
    Paul Simon's Concert In The Park (Warner Bros., 1991)
  Songs From the Capeman (Warner Bros., 1997)
   You're the One (Warner Bros., 2000)
     The Paul Simon Collection: On My Way, Don't Know Where I'm Goin' (Warner Bros., 2002)
     The Studio Recordings (Warner Bros., 2004)
    Surprise (Warner Bros., 2006)

When Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, the custody battle was simple. Art Garfunkel got the voice; the hair, and the honor of starring in Sherilyn Fenn's finest film, Boxing Helena. Paul Simon got the songs. He is America's favorite poet of New York alienation, dabbling stylistically in a variety of Third World and Tin Pan Alley genres. He can write brilliant songs in his snide mode ("Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard") or his sad mode ("Slip Slidin' Away") and enjoy massive success either way. When Simon's off his game, his fussy approach can sound belabored and self-defeating—he's never developed a signature beat of his own. But when he's on—Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years, Graceland—he's an inspired wit, doing for Manhattan what Steely Dan did for L.A.

His Seventies masterworks still stand out in his career like Phil Rizzuto's 1950 MVP season. The first remains the best: Paul Simon is a blast of city-kid humor and Latin-inflected acoustic grooving, with classics like "Run That Body Down," "Papa Hobo," and "Armistice Day." Simon cuts back on the flowery poesy of his early work, stripping the songs down to make room for his nimble doo-wop voice and guitar. "Mother and Child Reunion" mourns the death of the Sixties with a reggae rhythm section recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" has to be the funniest Catholic-guilt song ever written by a Jewish guy—Simon stumbles into a sordid sexual awakening, boogies off to Airto Moreira's percussion, and knocks off a world-class whistling solo. Simon would go on to have bigger hits, even get splashier reviews, but he's never made another album with the punch of Paul Simon.

Simon had more success with the sequel There Goes Rhymin' Simon, featuring the bouncy pop hits "Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like a Rock." On Still Crazy After All These Years, his second-best album, he's a gloomy poet with a weakness for fluffy keyboards, but he atones for all the electro-piano schlock with his funniest, nastiest urban romances, especially "You're Kind," "Have a Good Time,' and "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover." Best line: "You're so good/You introduced me to your neighborhood." Around this time he also appeared in Annie Hall, reportedly because Woody Allen wanted to lose the girl to a shorter guy.

Simon floundered for a few years, releasing only the clock-watching soundtrack to his film One Trick Pony. But he found his feet on Hearts and Bones, inspired by his brief show-biz marriage to Carrie Fisher. Ignored at the time, forgotten now, it's a hidden gem. It also introduced the tart songwriting style that paid off on Graceland, his big 1986 comeback. Simon traveled to Johannesburg to collaborate with South African mbaqanga musicians, resulting in one of the Eighties most acclaimed hits, not to mention the first Paul Simon album where anybody noticed the basslines. As a songwriter, he got back in touch with his sarcastic side in "I Know What I Know." He also displayed his sappy side in "Homeless" and 'Under African Skies," a horrendous duet with Linda Ronstadt. Simon failed to address apartheid in any significant way, but he did sing about making the scene at Hollywood parties. This guy gets invited to parties?

The Rhythm of the Saints tried to redo Graceland, except with Brazilian drummers and weak songs. Since then, he's only revisited the studio for minor efforts like Songs from the Capeman (a failed rehab job on his flop Broadway musical The Capeman) and You're the One, a relatively straightforward album with jazzy touched. The not-bad Surprise plays like a sister record to You're the One, with one key difference: Production help from Brian Eno, who outfits some of Simon's songs yet with spacey accoutrements. Despite the album's shiny surface, Simon sounds like Simon: He slides easily between sour and sweet, dissing corporations but also delivering tender ruminations on time and tide and pledging eternal love to his little girl.

His 1979 collection Greatest Hits, Etc. is long out of print, sad to say, and The Paul Simon Collection is an inferior substitute that emphasizes his softer side. Live Rhymin' was a stiff 1974 concert LP; Concert in the Park remakes his most famous songs with busy new arrangements, though Garfunkel doesn't show up. The Paul Simon Songbook was a U.K.-only 1965 folk one-off, and doesn't really count except as a Simon and Garfunkel footnote. The Studio Recordings is a box that augments each of Simon's individual studio albums with bonus tracks, mostly demos and work tapes—Simon has never been prolific enough to leave finished songs off his albums. But the rarities are prime, especially the 1971 demo of "Me and Julio," featuring an alternate third verse, and the gorgeous "Let Me Live in Your City."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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