There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is the logical second step in Paul Simon’s solo recording career, and it is a dazzlingly surefooted one. Despite its many light, humorous moments, the core theme of his first album, Paul Simon, was depressing: fear of death, its focal point a sung poem, “Everything Put Together Falls Apart,” that while worthy of comparison with the best work of John Berryman, could hardly be called “easy listening.” Since the album dealt with anxiety, it communicated anxiety and was difficult in places to accept as entertainment. This isn’t true of Rhymin’ Simon. Like its predecessor, it is a fully realized work of art, of genius in fact, but one that is also endlessly listenable on every level. Simon has never sounded so assured vocally. He demonstrates in several places pyrotechnical skills that approach Harry Nilsson’s (in embellishment of ballad phrases) and John Lennon’s (in letting it all hang out), though for the most part, Simon’s deliveries are straight — restrained and supple, bowing as they should to the material, which is of the very highest order.
Rhymin’ Simon shows, once and for all, that Simon is now the consummate master of the contemporary narrative song — one of a very few practicing singer/songwriters able to impart wisdom as much by implication as by direct statement. Here, even more than in the first album, Simon successfully communicates the deepest kinds of love without ever becoming rhetorical or overly sentimental. The chief factor in his remarkable growth since Simon and Garfunkel days has been the development of a gently wry humor that is objective, even fatalistic, though never bitter.
Thematically, Rhymin’ Simon represents a sweeping outward gesture from the introspection of the first album. Simon has triumphantly relocated his sensibility in the general scheme of things: as a musician, as a poet of the American tragedy, and most importantly as a family man. Rhymin’ Simon celebrates, above all, familial bonds, which are seen as an antidote, perhaps the only antidote, to psychic disintegration in a terminally diseased society. As an expression of one man’s credo, therefore, it is a profoundly affirmative album.
The chief new musical element Simon has chosen to work with — one he has hitherto eschewed — is black music: R&B and gospel motifs are incorporated brilliantly both in Simon’s melodic writing and in the sparkling textures of the album’s ten cuts, more than half recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The opener is “Kodachrome,” a streamlined poprock production that uses the image of color photography as a metaphor for imaginative vitality. The song opens with a couple of Simon’s most pungent lines: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all.” Next is “Tenderness,” a late-Fifties-styled doo-wop ballad in which Simon tells a friend: “You don’t have to lie to me/Just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.” In addition to boasting one of Simon’s loveliest vocals, “Tenderness” has a nicely subdued horn arrangement by Allen Toussaint and soulful R&B backups by a gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds.
“Take Me to the Mardi Gras” is sheer delight — a Latinflavored evocation of abandon in New Orleans that fades out in joyous Dixieland music by the Onward Brass Band. This sensuous flight of fancy is followed by “Something So Right,” Simon’s love song to his wife in which he tells her he can hardly believe his present happiness, since he is by nature a pessimist. A ballad that begins in an offhand, almost conversational tone, it builds slowly into a declaration of great eloquence. Side one closes with a witty, R&B piece of homespun city philosophy, “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor.”
“American Tune,” which opens side two is the album’s pivotal moment. A flowing ballad with the chordal structure of an American hymn-tune, its magnificent lyrics give us Simon’s definitive reflection on the American Dream. Writing from a state of exhaustion in England (Paul Samwell-Smith co-produced the cut in London, and Del Newman provided the stately string arrangement), Simon sees the country as a nation of “battered” souls, but still “home,” and the American Dream either “shattered” or “driven to its knees.” In an apocalyptic reverie, he equates his own death with the death of America and sees “the Statue of Liberty sailin’ away to sea.” The song, which has instrumental touches that deliberately recall Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” is the single greatest thing Simon has yet written, a classic by any standard.
“Was a Sunny Day” reshuffles images from “Kodachrome,” treating them playfully in a semi-reggae setting. A “high-school queen with nothing really left to lose” makes love with a sailor whom she calls “Speedoo but his Christian name was Mr. Earl.” “Learn How to Fall” has an opening melodic phrase similar to that of Bette Midler’s now-famous intro, “Friends,” but a different message: “You’ve got to learn how to fall/before you learn to fly.”
The album’s last two cuts, “St. Judy’s Comet” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” complete the thematic cycle of songs avowing familial devotion. In the exquisitely tender acoustic lullaby, “St. Judy’s Comet,” Simon enters into the imaginative life of his son, who wants to stay up late to watch for the mythical comet of the title. Simon concludes: “‘Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep/Well it makes your famous daddy/Look so dumb.” In “Loves Me Like a Rock,” a hand-clapping, call-and-response gospel anthem with the Dixie Hummingbirds providing the response, Simon resurrects his own childhood relationship with his mother. Since the anxiety-laden “Mother and Child Reunion” was the opening cut on the first Simon album, it is fitting that this incredibly powerful song of love and gratitude, reminiscent in spirit of “When The Saints,” should close the second.
Rhymin’ Simon is a rich and moving song cycle, one in which each cut reflects on every other to create an ever-widening series of refractions. Viewed in the light of the first album, Simon seems ultimately to be saying that acceptance of death is only possible through our ability to honor our human ties, especially those formed within the family structure. Only through the mutual affirmation of love can we redeem our imaginative powers from despair and be able to live with the breakdown of the wider “family” structure that is the American homeland without ourselves breaking down.