Paul Simon – [Album]

Wednesday, 02 November 2011

It may come as a surprise for fans to learn just how little most musicians tend to have with their back catalogue and the reissuing of it. Greatest hits packages, for example, are often one of the endeavors with the smallest amount of artist involvement; usually the stop-gap measure of choice for record labels to reinsert an artist on new release racks, greatest hits and best-of comps simply collect the songs everyone knows and occasionally tuck in a few bits of discarded detritus to entice long-time fans into buying something they likely don't need. In cases like that, all an artist needs to do is sign off on the release, maybe do a few shows (or sometimes a whole tour) to promote it and collect the royalties the new title may generate; that doesn't mean the artist doesn't care  about the material which has been collected, it just means there's another thing out there with their name on it, and it might buy them a little time to finish whatever it was they were working on around the same time – or sell a couple of concert tickets.

With that paradigm of practice in mind, those comps whereupon the musician actually lends a hand in production are that much more interesting. Why? When the artist responsible for the music gets involved with the assembling of a compilation, there's the implication that there is something in that particular group of songs that is important – something that they want to convey using those songs specifically; the implication is that there's a drive or reasoning which runs through those songs included  and it may provide clues to understanding the auteur's nature, somehow.

So what does Songwriter say about Paul Simon?

First, this two-disc, thirty-two song collection proves that Paul Simon proudly owns up to and stands behind every movement he's made in his fifty-year career, and that he's also very much in control of what's being presented. Some of the singer's most famous songs originally recorded with Art Garfunkel are included here to prove that point but, rather than including the original studio recordings, a brand new (circa 2011) live recording of “The Sounds Of Silence” opens this set and is followed by a live version of “The Boxer” from 1991 followed by Simon's duet with Aretha Franklin on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” These are plainly not the definitive versions of these songs but, in listening, they do set a tone for this comp; each of these classic songs has aged a bit here, and they really put the focus on Paul Simon's contributions – over the originals which were done as an evenly mixed (and credited) duo. The soul in Simon's vocal here is impossible to miss in these cuts, and the tenor of it is relieving and reassuring; that's another good emotional place to start.

With the tone and focus for Songwriter set by those first four songs, this collection immediately begins stretching out to survey the breadth of inspiration that Paul Simon has tested in the studio over the years and, in this context, listeners are shown just how great a distance that is. Strains of reggae, R&B, deep South blues and rock are all showcased in short order through “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Tenderness,” “Peace Like A River” and “Kodachrome” before circling back to the center that everyone – both fans and not – knows to be Simon's strength: temperate, observational and lush folk illustrated by “Something So Right.” The arc could (it does, in some ways) end there, but that's when listeners discover the beginning of Paul Simon's world music examination/fascination with the dense percussion of “Late In The Evening.”

After such an excursion, Songwriter could end there. Having illustrated the raw creative palette that the singer has at his disposal, that first forty-five percent of Songwriter is a full meal in itself, but it's from there that listeners discover the story still gets richer. After “Train In The Distance,” “Hearts And Bones” begins to illustrate how Paul Simon began to blend the colors in his palette, develop new tints and shades of each color and paint new pictures that no one has ever exactly matched or faithfully emulated. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” sees Simon effortlessly reinventing lyrical phrasing to find a way of shoehorning as many syllables as possible into a stanza without sacrificing melody while “Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes” not only crossbreeds Detroit and Philly soul with African timbres and melodies, it also brings the conglomeration to Harlem in order to give it a striking, urban infrastructure. Had anyone else with a history so steeped in folk music tried to do what Songwriter shows Paul Simon did over the span of fourteen years (Dylan included), they'd have been lynched as a charlatan but, as history has illustrated, Paul Simon would go on to be revered as an innovative artist of music; peerless in both his experimentations and the successes he enjoyed with them.

Maybe the singer was showing off a little, but after all that movement has been recorded on the first disc of Songwriter, disc two continues further – just to prove that none of the success was luck; everything about it was meticulously calculated. That fact is proven by the fifteen songs on disc two as they continue to refine the bases set by disc one, and it even pushes the boundaries of that work a bit further. Uninitiated listeners will be wowed as the fireworks in songs like “The Obvious Child,” “Spirit Voices,” “Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears” and “Father And Daughter” gently explode with vibrant sounds and heart, and do it with different tonal colors each time. It's incredible.

So, the obvious question becomes, “Was it the songs themselves, or Paul Simon's inclusion of them in the set which makes Songwriter the success it clearly proves to be?” That's a valid question and the truth is that it's likely a bit of both. Paul Simon wrote all these songs, but their assemblage here illustrates just how vibrant they can be with the right contrast. It's unlikely that someone on the outside looking in could have made such a presentation, so it stands to reason that Songwriter is the quality presentation that it is because the auteur himself assembled it. The care put in shows, and does make Songwriter a fantastic listen.



Songwriter is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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