Although his aim may be higher, Paul Simon has always been more a wistful classicist than an adventurous romantic: He wouldn’t dream of taking the Kierkegaardian leap to faith without first making a reservation at the best hotel on the other side. Even the fools don’t act foolish in his songs, for such gratuitous and unchic behavior simply cannot be permitted in a closed off society where class and proper emotional manners are rated more favorably than quixotic clownishness and primal risk taking. Why should a fool be just a fool when he can be elevated to the loftier and more poetic status of victim? What’s wrong with The Graduate anyway? Up there, there is almost no chance of being misunderstood or disliked, and everyone takes you seriously.
Still Crazy after All These Years, Simon’s grim and ambitious new album, begs these and other questions as it sure-handedly paints itself into the usual corner under the familiar shadow of Bob Dylan. For inside the lush and dolorous Still Crazy, there is a lean, hungry Blood on the Tracks trying to get out. Both LPs chronicle the dissolution of a marriage, but where Dylan, with ofttimes awkward agony, makes you feel it. Simon, with more slick professionalism than is good for his subject matter, makes you think you feel it — a crucial difference. Dylan’s pragmatic, toughminded “I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town/And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off” walks tall with its heartbreak, while Simon’s
Four in the morning
Longing my life away
I’ll never worry
Why should I?
It’s all gonna fade
sulks in ruinous self-pity.
Whereas the regenerative Blood on the Tracks was about someone lost, something gained. Still Crazy wears its depression like a merit badge of sensitivity, sometimes pushing its unrelieved bleakness into the realm of self-parody. On “My Little Town,” a song which reunites Simon with erstwhile partner Art Garfunkel, the singers intone: “And after it rains/There’s a rainbow/And all of the colors are black.” From the unintentionally hilarious “Night Game”:
There were two men down
And the score was tied
In the bottom of the eighth
When the pitcher died
Perhaps baseball is just too precarious a metaphor for marriage, sex or death. But it works scarcely less well than the color-coordinated pain — yellow sky, gray grass, orange juice, orange and blue rug — of “I Do It for Your Love,” a song whose interior contains more decoration than intensity. Each detail is carefully arranged — the orange juice is a killer! — and primped into a precious still life worthy of the worst of J. D. Salinger’s stories about the Glass family.
While a style at creative war with its content can set up interesting and ambiguous tensions that may actually strengthen the work as a whole, a style that constantly undercuts its good points is another matter. There is something ominous about the disparity between Simon and Phil Ramone’s typically elaborate, creamy production and the downbeat theme of the album. Even Simon’s overextended sense of irony cannot — indeed, may not want to — resolve the discrepancy. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is a complex. ironic song whose verses probe deeply into a unique situation of adultery: seduction disguised as therapy. Disappointingly, it suffers an attack of terminal cuteness during its facile chorus, which scans like an ad for Cosmopolitan.
Simon’s rubber-knife irony also takes a long walk off a transparently short pier in “Have a Good Time,” a song which makes me long for Randy Newman and three-dimensional characters who can achieve maximum impact with minimal sentimentality. (I’m thinking about Newman’s “Lover’s Prayer,” in which a grizzled old tough says:
Don’t send me no young girls to love me
With their eyes shinin’ bright …
She started to talk to me about the War. Lord …
Send me a woman tonight.)
Simon does manage some fine characterization in several songs, however. “In my little town/I never meant nothin I was just my father’s son,” he sings, and the listener is moved. On “50 Ways,” the protagonist says:
And then she kissed me
And I realized she probably was right
There must be 50 ways
To leave your lover
In the very subtle “You’re Kind,” the singer is absolutely eloquent about the reasons why there finally aren’t any reasons when two people decide to call it quits.
If Still Crazy ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions — the fake-gospel “Gone at Last” with Phoebe Snow just doesn’t belong: too many sons seem aesthetically schizophrenic — there is every indication those convictions were meant to be far-reaching. “Silent Eyes” talks about “stand(ing) before the eyes of God/And speak(ing) what was done.” Both “My Little Town” with its hero “I witching like a finger/On the trigger of a gun” and the title song more than him at the possibility of violence. On the latter, the singer claims:
I tear I’ll do some damage
One fine day
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers
Still crazy after all these years.
Meaning, of course, that his peers — by implication, all of us — are in the same shape he is.
“Still Crazy after All These Years” is the album’s best song because it is the only one that successfully breaks through the stylistic barrier between Simon’s subject matter and its natural implications and confronts both artist and audience directly. There is a poignancy and openness about its first verse that is charming. Mike Brecker’s saxophone solo throbs with passion, and for once the writer’s sensibility is determined by the fierceness of his will rather than his fussy fashionableness.
Paul Simon’s myths were always too pretty to be believed — they lacked the necessary mystery and danger to have size, his Moby Dick would have been a disaster — but no one has ever questioned his craftsmanship, the quality of his melodies or his seemingly inherent decency. It is difficult to imagine him “still crazy” because his pervasive intelligence has never allowed us to think him crazy in the first place. Good middleweights never are. If they were, they wouldn’t need that hotel reservation.