Songs from ‘The Capeman’ is a mongrel project. It isn’t the score for the Broadway musical written by Paul Simon and novelist/poet Derek Walcott, but 13 songs (out of 30-odd) selected from the show. Simon himself, not the cast members, sings most, but not all, of these tunes — which makes it an odd preview of a musical that won’t open until January.
That said, the album is terrifically satisfying. Simon has found a surprisingly effective musical voice — intermingling doo-wop, traditional Latin styles and art-song sophistication — in which to tell the story of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican teenager who inflamed New York’s ever-simmering ethnic tensions when he killed two young white boys in 1959. Agron, whose gang was called the Vampires, wore a black cape, and the city’s tabloids dubbed him the Capeman.
The sociopolitical aspects of the case occasionally lead Simon and Walcott to overreach in their lyrics, especially given the musical setting — “The politics of prison are a mirror of the street/The poor endure oppression, the police control the State” is a far cry from “I just met a girl named Maria.” But for the most part, the two men explore the tragedy of young lives swept up in circumstances far beyond their control with eloquence and a bracing lack of sentimentality. This work’s ultimate question is, what are the possibilities of redemption? Can even the Capeman find his way to Graceland?