On his new album, You’re the One, Paul Simon lowers the conceptual heat that typically surrounds his projects. After the South African and Brazilian journeys of, respectively, Graceland (1986) and The Rhythm of the Saints (1990) — and the foray into musical theater on Songs From ‘The Capeman’ (1997) — it must have seemed like the right time for a more straightforward collection of songs. “Somewhere in a burst of glory/Sound becomes a song/I’m bound to tell a story/That’s where I belong,” Simon sings on the new album’s opening track, and the comfort and command he displays throughout You’re the One demonstrate that he’s right.
Of course, “straightforward” is a relative term. Musically, the eleven songs here center on guitar-bass-percussion arrangements, with occasional keyboards, strings and wind instruments providing additional texture. In Simon’s way, the melodies are lucid, simple in the best sense of the term. The album’s overall impression is of quietness and introspection.
Direct as they may seem to be, however, many of these songs are not so quick to yield their meanings. You’re the One comes out a week or so before Simon’s fifty-ninth birthday, and age — not to mention marriage and fatherhood — has evidently done little to temper his unsentimental view of love and its elusive promises. Take what would initially seem to be the heartfelt declaration of the album’s title song. By the tune’s chorus, devotion unpredictably transforms into accusation: “You’re the one/You broke my heart/You made me cry.” Ever the cool observer, Simon shakes his head philosophically: “Nature gives us shapeless shapes/Clouds and waves and flame/But human expectation/Is that love remains the same.”
That expectation rarely is met, and the netherworld where unending possibility mysteriously disintegrates into inexplicable loss is Simon’s great thematic terrain. In “Darling Lorraine,” what the singer calls love is really a desperate hedge against his inner fears — and what may well be his murderous rage. Alongside a droning organ part, the trancelike “Quiet” suggests that death — “When the perfect circle/Marries all beginnings and conclusions” — may ultimately be the only deliverance from the maddening inner chatter of our anxieties.
But everything is not so grim. Over energetic guitar chords reminiscent of Buddy Holly, who gets name-checked in the song, “Old” has some fun with the inevitability (if you’re lucky) of aging. And the delicate ballad “Love” intimates that, despite our loneliness and panic at the prospect of abandonment, love is “free as air/Like plants, the medicine is everywhere.”
At times, Simon allows the power of his lyrics to disintegrate into abstraction. “The Teacher” and “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” for example, strive for allegorical richness but never quite achieve it. They’re either too obvious or too complex — it’s hard to tell which. But You’re the One can still take a worthy place in Simon’s esteemed body of work. This album may not lead you to the music of other continents. But it provides a map of the shifting geography of our emotional lives — the yearning vulnerability of our hearts, the intractable terror in our bones — and it’s all the more valuable for that.