Leave it to Paul Simon to look back not with anger but with fussiness. Timed to coincide with his farewell tour, In the Blue Light finds Simon rifling through his back catalog and remaking ten cuts from his post-Garfunkel albums. Given how notoriously meticulous he’s always been, you’d think Simon would have gotten these takes right the first time, but let’s not forget this is someone who released an album with not one but two songs called “Think Too Much.”
Simon is hardly the first musician to revisit his or her work, but the twist here is he’s opted for ten largely obscure songs from his solo albums. (Yes, he’s been thinking too much about his deep cuts, too.) As these sorts of projects go, it’s actually a smart decision; we certainly don’t need studio makeovers of “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Still Crazy After All These Years” or “You Can Call Me Al.” At its best, In the Blue Light amounts to a dream set list for devoted PaulHeads who wish he’d do entire shows of rarities and not bother with oft-played hits like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Graceland” and “Late in the Evening.”
Start, for instance, with “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” from the soundtrack to his flop 1980 movie One-Trick Pony. The original was gauzy and slouchy, the musical equivalent of a sigh, but he’s recast the song as woozy jazz, complete with Wynton Marsalis’ mellow trumpet. It’s as if Simon had dropped by a club after a hard day at the office and sat in with the house band, and the after-hours mood is a terrific match for the song’s despondent tone. He gives a similar last-round-of-the-night makeover to “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy,” one of the least remembered songs from Still Crazy After All These Years.
Some of the other remakes are equally, and surprisingly, gratifying. Working with the chamber music ensemble yMusic, he changes up “Can’t Run But” (from 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints) from a slice of hypnotic Brazilian world music into Philip Glass-style modern classical music. Simon takes the same tack with 1983’s enchanting “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” the elegantly old-school Hearts and Bones ballad that deserves to be rediscovered. Even though the haunting doo-wop harmonies of the first version are now gone, it too benefits from yMusic’s sawing-strings accompaniment.
But leave it to Simon—who made Nile Rodgers play 90-something guitar takes for one session—to redo songs in ways that don’t exactly overhaul the originals. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor,” his darkly comic litany of urban-life neuroses from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, repeats its descending-piano and doesn’t add much other than Simon’s now lower timbre. Simon appears to have the most issues with his 2000 album You’re the One, since he’s revamped four songs from it.
In a perverse move, “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” his anti-racial-profiling dig, is now a jaunty Mardi Gras march, but the alterations in the other You’re the One tracks are so slight you wonder why he bothered. Few beyond Simon will notice that “The Teacher” is more unplugged than the mild-mannered clank of the original or that “Love” and “Darling Lorraine” move at a slightly peppier clip than the versions we already know. (Simon does, however, seem to relish the “She’s so hot!” line in the latter more than in the preceding version.) It’s likely that only Simon will notice the differences—which, in a way, makes this one of the most Paul Simon albums of all.