Paul Simon offers some new ways of hearing some of his old songs. Nick Bollinger lends an ear.
A couple of weeks ago, just a few blocks from where he grew up in the borough of Queens, New York City, Paul Simon performed what he has said will be his last ever concert.
‘Questions For the Angels’ is a relatively recent Paul Simon song you could perhaps hear as a bookend to ‘The Sound Of Silence’, the song that really launched Simon’s career more than half a century ago. In essence it is not all that different. There’s still a pilgrim walking what appear to be the same old New York streets, asking questions that haven’t changed an awful lot in those fifty years, though where in the older song the words of the prophets were written on subway walls while the people bowed and prayed to neon gods, here Simon’s pilgrim comes face to face with a billboard bearing the image of Jay Z. ‘Questions For the Angels’ hasn’t become as iconic a song as ‘The Sound Of Silence’, but you sense Simon would at least like it to be noticed.
It’s one of ten songs from different corner of his career that he has revisited on In The Blue Light, a new album he put out last month to coincide with his final shows. That song originally appeared on his 2011 album So Beautiful or So What, but is remade here beautifully, with accompaniment from some top-shelf musicians including guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist John Patitucci. The title In The Blue Light sounds like it belongs to some cool jazz album from the 60s, and so, as it turns out, do some of these remakes.
Pianist Sullivan Fortner, drummer Jack DeJohnette and saxophonist Joe Lovano bring a kind of meditative swing to a new arrangement of ‘Some Folks Live Roll Easy’ – a track first heard on Still Crazy After All These Years, way back in the 70s. But even the more lighthearted things here take a distinctly swinging turn, especially when Wynton Marsalis and some of his long-time accomplices join the parade for ‘Pigs, Sheep & Wolves’.
Simon has always come across as a perfectionist, both in the studio and on stage. One senses that part of his reason for retiring at this point, is to go out with his voice and performing abilities still at full strength. You couldn’t imagine him grinding on with the diminished equipment of, say, his contemporary Bob Dylan. And this unexpected collection of remakes seems like another facet of that perfectionism. With some of these songs, it’s as though he is attempting to replace a previous version with an improved, more perfect one. Equally though, it’s an invitation for us to reconsider the perfection of songcraft in some of his more overlooked material. There are pointedly none of the hits here; no ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Graceland’ or ‘Sound Of Silence’. But there are pearls of compressed songwriting like ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte’, rescued from its original 80s recording with a timeless string quartet arrangement.
And then there’s ‘Darling Lorraine’, a standout from the unjustly neglected album You’re The One, from which he rescues four songs here, and with Simon’s best conversational phrasing, this one is still the standout.
Though he seems to mean it about quitting the touring, he has been less clear about whether or not he’ll keep releasing new music. Either way, In The Blue Light suggests some new ways to think about the music he has already made.