Paul Simon releases ‘Songwriter’ album with favorite hits

By Chris Shores

Matthew Staubmuller/flickr

Paul Simon – a singer-songwriter who has won 13 Grammy awards over a five-decade long career – turned 70 earlier this month. With the milestone came the release of “Songwriter,” a new double album that includes 32 songs handpicked by Simon.

Though known first and foremost as a musician, Simon is a poet, a lyrical master of words. “Songwriter” gives the artist the chance to highlight his work, and he doesn’t disappoint, sometimes omitting popular songs for lesser known ones that he likely believes highlights his best written work.

The first album of “Songwriter” begins with live versions of popular Simon & Garfunkel songs. From a live recording of his 1991 concert in Central Park, Simon selected “The Boxer,” one of the iconic classics from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970 Grammy-winning “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album. Another Simon & Garfunkel hit, “The Sound of Silence,” also appears on the album, but this time from a live performance more than 20 years after the Central Park concert, from this June in New York City’s Webster Hall.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” arguably the most well-known song Simon ever wrote, won Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 1971 Grammys. But for “Songwriter,” Simon selected a cover version by Aretha Franklin, which earned the R&B musician a Grammy in 1972. Fans may be disappointed to not hear Art Garfunkel’s famous solo in the song, but perhaps it was Simon’s way of showing his pride for his songwriting over the complete final product.

The collection then moves into Simon’s solo studio work, beginning with “Mother and Child Reunion,” the upbeat reggae-styled song from Simon’s self-titled 1972 album. That song reached No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts, but the next two songs may not be as well-known to the casual Simon listener. Also from the 1972 album, Simon selected “Peace Like A River,” a haunting tune that the singer revived for his 2011 tour. “Tenderness,” a slow jazz song from the 1974 “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” album features the singer pleading to a former lover to “just give [him] some tenderness beneath your honesty.”

The album then transitions to three songs from “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.” There’s no “Loves Me Like A Rock” in this collection, but it is hardly missed since “American Tune,” “Something So Right” and “Kodachrome” are all present.

Those unfamiliar with Simon’s 1970s solo work need look no further than these three songs for an example of his musical and lyrical depth. In “American Tune,” Simon and his guitar take his listeners on a poetic journey across space and time. “Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower / We come on the ship that sailed the moon,” sings Simon. “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour / And sing an American tune.”

Then there’s “Kodachrome,” perhaps one of the best unpaid product advertisements to ever hit the airwaves, as Simon spits a plea into the microphone, “I love to take a photograph / Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.”  Finally, Simon’s voice softly glides through the air in “Something So Right” as he again sings to an invisible lover, “They got a wall in China / It’s a thousand miles long … And I got a wall around me / that you can’t even see.”

As the instruments crescendo against the backdrop of a simple drum beat in “Late in the Evening,” Simon’s voice tells the autobiographical story of character Jonah Levin. The song is the first from Simon’s film, “One-Trick Pony,” for which he wrote, starred in and recorded music.

This fast-paced number is followed by three slow, melodic songs from his 1983 album “Hearts & Bones.” The self-titled song tells the story of two lovers beginning their lives together, which contrasts nicely with “Train in the Distance,” where Simon sings softly that “Negotiations and love songs / Are often mistaken for one and the same.” In “René And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War,” Simon takes poetic license as he fantasizes about the inner thoughts of the Belgian surrealist artist and his wife.

“Songwriter” moved chronologically until this point, but here Simon backtracks to “Still Crazy After All These Years,” the title song from the 1976 album that won Grammy Album of the Year. To include the song here makes it seem like an afterthought, which is surprising because it was a part of Simon’s encores during many a show in his tour this summer. Also surprising is the absence from any other songs off of that 1976 album. Omitting “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is understandable; it is a catchy number but without much depth lyrically. But the verses of other songs on the album contain poetic masterpieces, such as the line from “Have A Good Time,” where Simon muses that “Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland / But I think it’s all overdone.”

It’s a fair argument to make that the 1986 album “Graceland,” recorded for the most part in South Africa, is the pinnacle of Simon’s music career. In 1986, the singer/songwriter seemingly had moved on from crooning over simple love and heartbreak. “Boy in the Bubble” opens on the sun “beating on the soldiers by the side of the road.” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” tells the story of a relationship threatened by class differences. And “Graceland” is the cream of the crop – a story of a man with a “window in his heart” who travels to Tennessee to find himself amidst a world of “ghosts and empty sockets.”

What sets “Songwriter” apart from a typical greatest hits album is that Simon is not afraid to continue his lyrical narrative – to fill up an entire second album with songs post-Graceland. It’s a daring move, as many people may not even be aware that the singer produced five albums – nearly half of his solo discography – after 1990. In fact, two of these albums – “Rhythm of the Saints” in 1990 and “You’re The One” 10 years later – were nominated for the Grammy Album of the Year.

Simon selects four songs from his 1990 album: “The Obvious Child,” “Further to Fly,” “The Cool Cool River” and “Spirit Voices.” Recorded with heavy Latin American influence, Simon’s mind wanders as freely as the lyrics flow. “Anger and no one can heal it / Slides through the metal detector / Lives like a mole in a motel / A slide in a slide projector,” he sings in “The Cool Cool River.”

Two songs – “Born in Puerto Rico” and “Quality” – from Simon’s failed Broadway musical “Songs of the Capeman” make an appearance. The 1997 musical was a major commercial flop, and the songs, while decent, are by no means among the singer’s best work.

In contrast, Simon’s 2000 album “You’re The One” provides two lyrical gems to the “Songwriter” collection. “Darling Lorraine” is a heart-wrenching story told from the perspective of a widower. “Señorita with a Necklace of Tears” is truly beautiful as Simon’s verses melodically tell, among other things, the story of a “frog in South America / Whose venom is a cure / For all the suffering mankind must endure.” Simon also includes “Look at That” from his 2000 album.

The final six songs come from his last two works: the 2006 “Surprise” album and “So Beautiful or So What,” released this April.

The former album has a more electronic feel, which is surprising considering Simon’s folk roots. But despite the different sound, his lyrics are still golden. Consider how he begins “Another Galaxy”: “On the morning of her wedding day / When no one was awake / She drove across the border / Leaving all the yellow roses on her wedding cake / Her mother’s tears, her breakfast order / She’s gone, gone, gone.” Also appearing from “Surprise” are the songs “That’s Me” and “Father & Daughter.”

Simon’s collection concludes with songs from “So Beautiful or So What” – the title track, “Love and Hard Times” and “Rewrite.” The latter song is an appropriate conclusion among the final chapter of the collection, as Simon – now 70-years-old after 50 years in the music business – proudly proclaims, “I’m working on my rewrite, that’s right / I’m gonna change the ending.”

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]