It makes sense that I would end this year’s “catch up” review period. I did have every intention to go into detail on this project back in June when it was released, but life happened and I just never got around to it. Paul Simon is a man that needs little introduction. Simon & Garfunkel have made some of the best songs of all time and Graceland is an incredible masterpiece that holds up to this day. The rest of Simon’s solo career has not had the same kind of highs since then, making expectations for this new album not too high. Then I listened to it, and I wanted to talk about it ever since.
First, I should mention this album is not amazing. Do not expect the kind of late career material we got from artists like David Bowie or Nick Cave. In many ways this is not out of Simon’s comfort zone all that much. This is a folk album by a 74-year-old man who has nothing left to prove. It does not need to do anything crazy, he just needs to do what he knows in an interesting way that his fans can appreciate. That being said, Paul Simon did just that and created one of the most thoughtful folk records of the year.
The opener “The Werewolf” is a dim view of the future of the world. Simon sings about the end of the world, which will not come due to some larger than life event, but from us humans who will kill ourselves once we become monsters, like the titular creature. The instrumentation here is great, using hand claps and foot stomps for percussion, giving the song a unique sound.
The tone shifts to something a little more playful on “Wristband,” detailing an experience where he is unable to gain access to his own show because he does not have a wristband. While the story is likely fictitious, the sentiment is both humorous and telling of how Simon might feel as an aging musician. The song does not stop here, using its last verse to show that the VIP wristband to get in can be symbolic of how only those with wealth can gain access to certain things in life.
The next song “The Street Angel” introduces us to a character of the same name who Simon passes on the street. The man is homeless and seemingly schizophrenic as well, but Simon seems to imply that there is more to him. The production is particularly interesting with growling mumbles being heard in the background, making the songs feel a little schizophrenic itself. The character is further developed on “In a Parade” where the Street Angel is in the hospital, going mad as his schizophrenia gets worse. Despite its upbeat sound, it is a much darker song that gets a little frightening with context.
The title track deviates from most of the themes, but still works. The ballad is certainly cute, as Simon sings to his lover, wondering if they would fall in love again if they met again as strangers. The lush backing instruments, with light synths and chimes add weight to everything and gives a personal insight into Simon’s mind.
It pairs well with the ballad “Proof of Love” which is certainly one of the more atmospheric tracks on here. It comes in at almost six minutes, all of which sees Simon asking God for proof that he still loves us. The problems on Earth come up in passing here, but are not ever heavily reflected on. This is obviously Simon’s intention as he focuses more on his personal feelings and does so effectively.
Simon utilizes his story telling abilities for “The Riverbank” which was inspired by an experience Simon had while visiting veterans. He uses some strong imagery to help capture the PTSD that these men now have and explains the tragic reasoning so many get tangled up with demons when back home. It is heartbreaking and Simon does a decent job of going into it here. This songwriting is also utilized on “Cool Papa Bell” a lighter track focused on the titular baseball player. The song has a lighter sound, with tubas being mixed into the instrumentation. It also sees Simon use “motherfucker” which is effective considering how clean he tends to be in his writing.
The album closer “Insomniac’s Lullaby” is exactly what it sounds like, a lullaby that details the thoughts going on in one’s mind as they struggle to fall asleep. The song seems sweet until the end when it seems clear what the actual intention of the song is. Simon sings about falling asleep as a metaphor death, which is obvious but did not click with me immediately. He tackles the subject matter in a beautiful way, not dragging down the song in depression, just noting the reality of mortality.
Overall, this is not the greatest record to come from Paul Simon and will probably only be loved by his biggest fans. I found it incredibly pleasant and the fact that it has not left me all year is telling and I am glad it finally got to be covered in detail. I cannot see anyone hating an album like this, it is very light and agreeable in sound and effective in its songwriting. Most of all, it is great so see someone like Paul Simon still trying at this point in his career.
Best Tracks: The Werewolf, Wristband, Street Angel, Stranger to Stranger, In a Parade, Cool Papa Bell, Insomnia’s Lullaby
Worst Track: The Garden of Edie