- Paul Simon
I was prepared to ridicule this latest compilation of Simon’s work on the basis that this follows two other solo collections plus scores of best-of sets featuring his days with Art Garfunkel. Then, I listened to it. The major reason for its worth compared to those other releases has to do with its concept. Taken from nearly four decades of material as a solo artist, the emphasis is on the “songwriter” element of his work. Chosen by Simon, it includes a few of his biggest hits but mainly concentrates on tracks that he feels deserve wider recognition and represents his creative worth over time.
Songwriter tells the musical tale of a man who wants to match the rhythm of life with pensive, caustic and, occasionally, humorous words that elegantly map out the American experience. Understandably, those words contain more impact when the numbers have the volume turned down. “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” unites the artist with his love of doo wop; as does the musical roadmap of “Tenderness” with the Dixie Hummingbirds. “Peace Like a River” may have come out in 1972 but its defiant political stance is just as relevant today. Then there’s last June’s performance of “The Sound of Silence,” which still creates chills even when it’s missing his familiar duet partner. But even when the lyrics are wedded to the ebullient rhythms of Jamaica, Africa and South America, it’s not just an opportunity for Simon to be rhymin’. There are still points and revelations made through his mix of finite and abstract approaches to wordplay. “Late in the Evening” and “Kodachrome” give early indications of this ability years before he worked with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland.
Despite the more than two hours of solid writing, a couple of missteps do pop up. Sounding like a guitar loop taken from Discipline-era King Crimson merged with Peter Gabriel’s “Security,” “The Cool Cool River” stands out for all the wrong reasons. And even when he intends to resurrect the negativity that surrounded his failed Broadway foray with The Capeman, “Born in Puerto Rico” is little more than an expository number in a musical than a showstopper worthy of being included here.
But, overall, what Songwriter underscores the line that runs from Simon’s youth in the ‘50s through his current work in the 21st century. Over two discs and 32 songs he connects doo wop, rock, folk, blues, gospel, soul and worldbeat, shifting comfortably from one sparkling track to another.