Paul Simon’s new album is all about heart versus mind, thinking versus feeling, and how these dichotomies get in the way of making music or love. He addresses the issue directly in “Think Too Much” (which was once to have been the title of this album), goes at it metaphorically in “Train in the Distance,” resolves it temporarily in “Hearts and Bones” and fashions a sort of fable about it in “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War.” The latter song ranks among the best Simon has written. There they are, a Belgian surrealist painter, his old lady and their pooch, dancing naked in a hotel room, window-shopping on Christopher Street and getting dolled up to dine with “the power elite.” Wherever they go, though, they are haunted by the likes of the Penguins, the Moonglows, the Orioles and the Five Satins.
It’s a hilarious and magical juxtaposition of images that’s also touching, because Paul Simon obviously identifies with the figure of the grown-up, respectable artist irrevocably smitten with those doo-wop groups, “the deep forbidden music” that originally made him fall in love with rock & roll.
In an earlier era, Paul Simon would have written for Broadway, a craft that demands that a song tell a story or define a character. But like any youngster in the Fifties, he got hooked on the sheer sexual energy of rock & roll — not so much the guitar-based electricity of Chuck Berry, Elvis and the Beatles, but the dreamy soulfulness of groups that euphemized their teenage romantic longings in nonsense lyrics. The trouble was that Simon was too clever for either kind of rock & roll. The words always came first for him, the music was secondary, and the rock & roll he loved — the delicate Spanish guitar, the hushed doo-wop harmonies — lingered faintly in the distance like a disembodied ideal.
The same conflict between the ideal and the actual threads through his songs about relationships. “Train in the Distance” and “Think Too Much” recall such classic postmortems as “Overs” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Simon’s always been good at writing about ending love affairs, perhaps because he thinks too much about his mate’s faults and how perfect she should be. But the song that really goes the distance is “Hearts and Bones,” which Simon gave Carrie Fisher as a present. “One and one-half wandering Jews” go mountain climbing in New Mexico, witness some exotic marriage ritual, discuss “the arc of a love affair” (as if it were a mathematical problem!) and toy with the idea of a quickie wedding south of the border. But as usual, they think too much about it, retire to separate coasts, do that mature but stupid thing of seeing other people to test the strength of their bond and nearly throw away the entire relationship before coming to their senses in a triumphant epiphany: “You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/Their hearts and their bones/And they won’t come undone.”
The tunes on Hearts and Bones are subtle, not immediately singable and certainly less startling than the lyrics, but the music has a certain playfulness that matches the album’s cerebral self-consciousness. “Cars Are Cars” stops and starts like a traffic jam; “Think Too Much” appears in two very different versions, a folk-jazzy rendition and a snappy rock version featuring Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. And Simon’s superb eulogy for John Lennon, “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” manages to place four decades of rock & roll history on a continuum from Fifties R&B balladeer Johnny Ace to new-music maestro Philip Glass, whose poignant coda to the song ends with terrifying abruptness. The only real dud is “Allergies,” which, unfortunately, opens the album—it’s sort of like “Kodachrome” with Vocoder, and it could have stayed in the drawer.
Hearts and Bones was meant, for a while, to be a Simon and Garfunkel album. It’s just as well that it isn’t. A reunion package would have made the album a different event than what it really is: a thinking man’s homage to the Penguins, the Moonglows, the Orioles and the Five Satins. Not so crazy after all these years, the artist gets to be alone with his earth angel, sincerely, in the still of the night.