Okay, okay, I know. Artists like Paul Simon don’t really need Idiot’s Guides. Who hasn’t heard of Paul Simon, or heard a bunch of his music?

Then again, there’s a fairly significant misunderstanding of Simon’s work, in my opinion; it’s one that he’s probably largely responsible for, but nonetheless, the popular concept of Simon as a self-important, pompous, feckless musical dilettante/thief doesn’t really tell the whole story. Regardless of his music’s flaws Á¢€” and there are definitely flaws Á¢€” I think he’s earned a place among the great American songwriters. More importantly, his hits have often failed to present an accurate picture of the depth of his talent; though stuff like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “You Can Call Me Al” has its merits, it isn’t really important music, of which Simon has written more than his share.

Paul Simon’s ninth proper solo album comes out today, too, so what better time for a fond look back? Buckle up, chilluns, and get ready for some relaxed, literate pop music.

The Paul Simon Songbook (1965)
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Paul Simon - The Paul Simon Songbook

I was on the fence about whether or not to include Songbook in this overview; it was mainly a UK release, and flickered in and out of print for decades before Sony’s Legacy imprint put out a remastered version in 2004. Recorded on the fly to satisfy a need for product during Simon’s brief run as a British solo artist in the mid-’60s, Songbook is of interest mainly as a curio for the most serious of Paul Simon fans. Though the Simon & Garfunkel versions of these songs were sometimes guilty of overproduction, they don’t benefit from the simple acoustic treatment as much as you might think.

Some of this is due to the engineering, which is as sloppy as you’d expect, given the album’s impetus and timetable; a larger problem, though, is Simon himself. At this point, his performances tended to be as heavy-handed as his songs, and without Art Garfunkel’s guileless tenor, large portions of The Paul Simon Songbook are never able to do more than feebly hint at Simon’s eventual capabilities. It’s interesting to hear new/old versions of these familiar songs, and some Á¢€” in particular “Kathy’s Song” (download) and “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” (download) Á¢€” stand up well enough on their own.

It’s easy to see, though, why this never amounted to more than a short interlude in Simon & Garfunkel’s partnership, and why Simon worked for so long to prevent its domestic release. The weariness and wounded optimism that would eventually become his hallmarks are here, but they sound like a pose; he hadn’t earned them yet, and his lyrics Á¢€” which always tend to waver between smart and insufferable Á¢€” are hurt in the presentation. Anyone who ever said Simon didn’t need Garfunkel should hear Songbook.

Paul Simon (1972)
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Paul Simon - Paul Simon

Though his early forays into literate folk-pop territory sometimes edged uncomfortably close to silliness, Simon eventually emerged as a songwriter of uncommon depth and insight; by the time he and Garfunkel released their final album together, 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, it was difficult to imagine where else he could go within the genre. Simon probably wondered the same thing Á¢€” his restlessness is evident on a number of Bridge‘s tracks, most notably “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” and “Cecilia.” After the duo’s breakup, Simon faced the unenviable task of recording a solo debut as the follow-up to an album that most artists would have been lucky to call career-defining.

The result was 1972’s Paul Simon, an album both more intimate and more expansive than Bridge; though it lacks its predecessor’s intricately crafted, often grandiose production, it does a better job of reflecting Simon’s wandering musical spirit. His continuing fascination with Latin American music is evident in “Duncan,” but he also toys with reggae (in the hit “Mother and Child Reunion”) and the album in general has a looser, more open-ended feel than any of the Simon & Garfunkel stuff.

It’s also a very understated record. For most of it, Simon fronts a small combo (including some heavy hitters, naturally, including Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel, David Spinozza, Mike Manieri, Ron Carter, and Hal Blaine, not to mention Stefan Grossman, Airto Moreira, and Stephane Grappelli), and the songs are generally fairly simple and quiet Á¢€” hushed, even. “Duncan,” “Reunion,” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” were the hits, but they don’t tell the whole story; in fact, you could argue that the album’s real heart lies in lesser-known cuts like “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” (download) and “Run That Body Down” (download). They do a better job of illustrating how far Simon had come as a chronicler of small, universal human moments, rather than a guy who swung for a major statement every time he stepped up to the plate.

He’d been moving this direction for some time, obviously; that he continued thusly as a solo artist was no real surprise. The truly gratifying discovery in Paul Simon‘s eleven tracks was how completely assured he sounded on his own. That Simon & Garfunkel was more than the sum of its parts, there is no doubt, and yet its creative principal’s growth continued unabated after the split. Simon’s easy boredom with himself Á¢€” what would eventually become his Achilles’ heel Á¢€” was still working in his favor.

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973)
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Paul Simon - There Goes Rhymin' Simon

Like I was just saying, with his post-S&G debut, Paul Simon demonstrated an increasingly impressive ability to hone in on small, universal human moments. And though his angle and delivery were often subject to change, one thing about that focus remained relatively unchanged; namely, the human moments in question tended to be filled with emotional drift and dissatisfaction.

Enter There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. It isn’t that the rest of his albums are dour, exactly; he’s always been good at pointing out the silver lining along with the cloud. But none of Simon’s other albums are imbued with the quiet joy that runs throughout Rhymin’.

When it came to where and how to record the album, Simon chose perfectly, heading to Muscle Shoals and using local musicians (most notably the Dixie Hummingbirds) on several tracks. Rhymin’ might represent producer Phil Ramone’s finest hour Á¢€” everything has a loose, organic feel. And the songs, almost to a cut, are classics; not just the hits (namely “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock”), but pretty much everything else Á¢€” the passive-agressive kissoff “Tenderness,” the domestically blissful “Something So Right,” the wry lullaby “St. Judy’s Comet,” the calmly optimistic “Learn How to Fall” (download) Á¢€” ranks among the finest work of Simon’s career.

Particularly powerful is “American Tune” (download), a song whose bloodied-yet-quietly-defiant patriotism remains just as painfully appropriate today. Warner Bros. ought to re-release it as a single every four years.

Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
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Paul Simon - Still Crazy After All These Years

Just as quickly as he went all warm and fuzzy on his audience, Simon made a hard 180 with his next release: Still Crazy After All These Years is soaked through with flip resentment and spiteful humor. Crazy, like all of Simon’s albums, is eclectic enough to wriggle out from under blanket statements Á¢€” the unbridled joy at redemption found in “Gone at Last” isn’t resentful or spiteful at all Á¢€” but for the most part, the record reflects a sense of bloated urban disillusionment and self-loathing. Simon’s arrangements mask his sentiment effectively, to the point that someone could easily listen to Still Crazy and hear nothing more than tasteful soft rock, delivered with precision by a tight, jazzy combo.

That combo, again, included some heavy hitters; pretty much every member of the New York session mafia was present and accounted for, including Richard Tee, David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Hugh McCracken, Ralph McDonald, Bob James, Steve Gadd, and others. Everything Á¢€” from the drums to the electric piano to Simon’s laid-back vocals Á¢€” has a warm, full-bodied sound. And so many of Simon’s bitter swipes are delivered in passing, or couched in such mellow surroundings, that it’s difficult to tell whether Crazy was a hit because Simon’s audience could identify with the feelings he expressed, or because the record is just so pretty.

Either way, it’s hard to argue with the command of craft evident in songs like “My Little Town” (download) and “I Do It For Your Love” (download). Awards ensued, along with the sort of paralyzing anticipation that causes an artist to take five years to release a follow-up.

One Trick Pony (1980)
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Paul Simon - One Trick Pony

One of the popular knocks against Paul Simon is the widespread perception of him as a pompous jerk Á¢€” something that One Trick Pony, the five-years-in-the-making, not-quite-a-soundtrack to the film of the same name (written by and starring himself) did nothing to dispel.

Whether the film was an act of monumental hubris or an overlooked gem is beside the point of this article, but the idea of Simon playing a rock star on the big screen doubtless colored many people’s opinions of the album that he released alongside the movie. Though Pony wasn’t a complete flop, it did break a chain of unqualified commercial success stretching all the way back to Simon & Garfunkel’s second album. Factor in the equally tepid critical response to the record, and One Trick Pony becomes the fulcrum Simon’s solo career rests upon. Up to this point, he’d enjoyed a relatively chummy relationship with public and media alike; since then, the response to each release has consisted of equal parts palm fronds and brickbats.

On its own merits, One Trick Pony isn’t so bad. Musically, it’s surprisingly of a piece with Still Crazy Á¢€” it’s got the same mellow, jazz-fusion New York vibe Á¢€” and though only “Late in the Evening” was an actual hit, a number of songs (particularly “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” [download] and the title track [download]) still hold up.

Hearts and Bones (1983)
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Paul Simon - Hearts and Bones

If One Trick Pony represented a bit of a setback for Simon, Hearts and Bones was an unmitigated disaster.

The album had a troubled birth from the beginning; it was initially supposed to be a Simon & Garfunkel reunion, inspired by the duo’s well-received touring throughout ’81-’83, but Garfunkel didn’t care for the songs (which are nakedly self-absorbed, even by Simon’s standards), and Simon, eventually, decided he didn’t much care for Garfunkel’s voice on the songs, and erased his erstwhile partner’s tracks.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that the album’s failure had more to do with a Paul Simon backlash than a real absence of quality on the songs themselves. Some of the synths haven’t aged well, and the production on the whole has the flat, glassy sheen of the era, but the set isn’t without its charms. You can feel Simon’s restlessness again Á¢€” aside from working with Nile Rodgers and Philip Glass, he managed to write a song about numbers, songs about (at least on the surface) cars and the moon, and used doo-wop to tell an imaginary story about RenÁƒÆ’Á‚© Magritte and his wife (download); among the more ‘traditional’ songs, the title track (download) has aged particularly well.

The album’s failure was unfortunate, but some good came out of it; Simon Á¢€” the kind of fussy perfectionist who takes even his successes personally Á¢€” reacted to the sting by falling into a deep creative funk, one from which he wouldn’t emerge until he’d recorded the most successful album of his career.

Graceland (1986)
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Paul Simon - Graceland

Three years removed from the greatest disappointment of his career, Paul Simon returned with Graceland, the album that not only remains his greatest success, but remains, twenty years after its release, at the vanguard of continent-fusing American pop.

Coming, as it did, at the height of apartheid awareness in this country, Graceland Á¢€” which melds South African gumboot music with American folk and rock, largely through the use of South African musicians Á¢€” couldn’t help but spark controversy. Simon’s decriers accused him of breaking the cultural embargo against South Africa, a charge he flouted by taking his Graceland tour there; meanwhile, others dismissed the album as the feckless dilettantism of a creatively bankrupt musical poacher who sought to take credit for music he had nothing to do with. (Supposedly, the instrumental bed for the Graceland track “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints” [download] consists of a Los Lobos jam that Simon took full writing credit for without the band’s knowledge or consent.)

Fortunately, I have the luxury of saying that the comments area is the place for debating accusations; what matters here is that Graceland Á¢€” as a piece of musical entertainment, and perhaps even as an act of cultural ambassadorship Á¢€” works supremely well. Though Simon was in the process of moving away from linear lyrics and song structures (wide swaths of Graceland‘s lyrics consist of words that sound good together rather than form a coherent narrative), he still had enough of a pop tether to keep the songs from floating off into the ether. In fact, these are some of the catchiest songs Simon’s ever written.

What Graceland isn’t is a gumboots record, not really; purists used this as another excuse to wave away the album, but this criticism misses the point, because it never pretends to be any one thing. Simon mixes South African, Latin American, and American Southern/Northeastern ingredients into one big gumbo pot, and the result is a beguiling blend that isn’t wholly indebted to any one nation or genre. It’s just a fun listen. You’ve probably heard it all a thousand times, or have a copy of your own, but listen to “That Was Your Mother” (download) anyway.

The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)
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Paul Simon - The Rhythm of the Saints

Four years after he went to Africa and came back with Graceland, Simon attempted to repeat the experiment in South America for The Rhythm of the Saints, and fell victim to the law of diminishing returns Á¢€” commercially, anyway. Saints has always gotten a bad rap, but I enjoy it just as much as its predecessor.

It’s easy to see why Saints has always been pegged as Graceland‘s ugly stepbrother; Simon was moving further away from traditional song structures and linear narratives, and in the process, forsaking melodic hooks. For every old-fashioned verse-chorus-verse number like “The Obvious Child,” “Born at the Right Time,” or “Proof” (all of which were medium-sized hits), there’s a gauzy tune like “Spirit Voices” (download) or the title track (download). It’s the kind of album that needs to be fully absorbed before it’s appreciated, and absorbing it takes time. The fact that it wasn’t Graceland II, even though it may have threatened to be on the surface, kept a lot of people from bothering to discover this.

Having co-opted South African mining music and Brazilian polyrhythm, Simon seemed to have exhausted his globetrotting options, at least for the moment; short of making a pop album out of Icelandic folk music or Aborigine ballads, he was going to have to head back home for his next move.

You’re the One (2000)
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Paul Simon - You're the One

You’re the One sold half a million copies and earned a Grammy nomination, but that’s almost the default result of an artist of Simon’s stature taking ten years to make an album. To say that One received a warm critical or commercial response would be a bit of an overstatement Á¢€” it wasn’t roundly panned, but for the most part, people didn’t know what to make of it.

It’s an odd bird, for sure. Musically, it’s a slight culmination of all the various forms and genres Simon has toyed with throughout his career, yet at the same time, it’s a continuation of his move away from anything you could legitimately call pop songwriting; though it contains its share of the lovely (“That’s Where I Belong” [download]) and the catchy (“Old” [download]), the majority of the album consists of songs that take their time to get where they’re going:if they’re going anywhere at all. It’s as though Simon, having already abandoned linear narrative, decided he wanted to see what would happen if he threw stuff like melody and easily discernible song structure out the window too.

It’s an ambitious decision, admirably so, but it makes for difficult listening. It’s surprising, because as often as Simon has struggled to carve out new territory in pop music, he’s usually been fairly good at adding a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. He knows his audience. You’re the One, though, travels into territory so insular that it’s almost as though Simon forgot anyone else might be listening to these songs. It’s charming, to a point, but ultimately disappointing.

What the album makes clear is the amount of emotional distance Simon has added to his songs. It’s been a development long in the making, but on Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, he was able to use the natural warmth of the music he borrowed from as a proxy for the heart he’d once worn on his sleeve Á¢€” well, maybe not on his sleeve, exactly, but someplace nearby. Here, the arrangements and instrumentation can’t Á¢€” don’t try to Á¢€” disguise the way Simon has largely moved away from telling stories and toward setting moods.

Surprise (2006)
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Paul Simon - Surprise

Leading up to its release, the big story about Surprise was that Simon had enlisted the aid of Brian Eno as a “sonic landscaper” for this set of songs; certain music dorks (myself included) also perked up at the news that Bill Frisell played electric guitar on the album. It wasn’t the most obvious of combinations, but it had no small amount of weird, exciting promise.

The reality is much more mundane than you might expect. Neither Eno nor Frisell exert the kind of influence they typically do over recordings they’re involved with Á¢€” the production is a little more modern, and the guitars are a tad stranger in spots, but for the most part, the new additions are fairly subtle.

They work, though. Simon has ventured further out onto the insular, elliptical limb he started climbing with You’re the One; the statements these songs make Á¢€” about love, youth, old age, and modern American life Á¢€” are as indirect as the songs themselves. They’re mood pieces, paintings with words, and they benefit Á¢€” more than is immediately apparent Á¢€” from the extra color Eno’s “landscaping” provides. It’s subtle, as I said, but listen to “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” (download) and “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean” (download) and you’ll see how the added noise helps broaden the music’s appeal.

That being said, it’s hard to listen to Surprise without thinking that Simon’s constant restlessness has robbed his work of a lot of what made it great. His music and lyrics once evoked aspects of the American experience so powerfully that their impact remains undiminished, even after more than three decades; these days, he often seems to be talking mainly to himself. He deserves no shortage of credit for refusing to simply rest on his laurels, but ambition is often a poor substitute for emotional resonance. Simon’s creative journey doubtless has more than a few twists and turns left in it, and he seems to be in little danger of falling into a rut Á¢€” but it would be nice to hear him settle into another groove.

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About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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