Friday, April 17, 2015

Album Review: Paul Simon - Still crazy after all these years

You know that question, the one that goes “if you could live in any era in history what would it be”? I always answer it in the exact same way, my reply never deviates. And while some people dream of returning to prehistoric times or to that of the Roman Empire I'd like to return to a much more recent period of time: the 1970s. I actually lived through nine months of that decade but I don't recall much of it, and I certainly wasn't old enough to savour the cultural melting pot that was 1970's New York. That's where I'd like to go, right into the heart of the rotten apple, into Harlem, The Bronx and Brooklyn. I want to see Scorcese's Mean Streets, run wild with The Warriors and end the night dancing to disco music in Studio 54.

The 1970s represent a high-point for modern popular culture; the music, the movies, the books, the singers, the directors and the writers. Fuelled by a sense of freedom, an almost anarchic need to express themselves while simultaneously snubbing their nose at the authorities, these people created a mass body of work that will never be equalled. Imagine this, imagine if you gathered all the greats works of that era, the records, the original film reels, the dusty first drafts of the decade's great novels and placed them in one confined area. Imagine what that space would represent, what an Aladdin's Cave of originality and imagination you would have on your hands.

Musically the seventies are responsible for the birth of many important genres – punk, rap – but moreso for the continuation and the development of those that already existed. I make no secret of my admiration for one of the decade's most decorated stars, Stevie Wonder has long been my musical idol, the one whom I compare all others against. And with good reason, the seventies belonged to him; three Best Album Grammys in the space of four years attest to that. Who knows, it could have been four in four if Songs in the Key of Life hadn't taken so long to complete. But perhaps it was for the best, because 1975 (Stevie's year out) saw the release of an album that deserved the ultimate accolade, one that would arguably have won the Best Album Grammy in any year regardless of what it was competing against. That album was Still Crazy After All These Years. And its creator was Paul Simon.

This was the first time I'd ever listened to a Paul Simon album. Yes I was aware of his work and knew the hits, the singles and the jingles. But he'd always been one of those artists I'd deigned unsuitable for my tastes. However as you get older your tastes expand, and you become less inclined to dismiss music based on ill-informed preconceptions. At the rate I'm going, I expect to be listening to Religious Thrash-metal rap by the time I'm forty.

My first reaction to Still Crazy is one that has stayed with me throughout repeated listenings: this is an album full of sorrow and pain, one of anguish. And yet despite all this sadness and melancholy it is in many ways an uplifting piece of work. That is why this is such a special collection of songs; its creator is bearing his soul, allowing us a glimpse into the darkest, most tortured, parts of his mind, and yet by its completion we are left with a sense of joy, a feeling of hope for his (and maybe our own) future. How does he this? How does he recall failed relationships, the pain of his childhood and the hardship of life in general without bringing us all down with him? Simple; he forms songs with themes that we can relate to, lyrics full of heartfelt emotion and musical arrangements that soothe and placate even the most cheerless listener. And then there's his voice.

These songs couldn't have been sung by anyone else, that much is notable almost from the first minute. The very notion of someone covering any of the album's ten tracks is laughable to me. These are Paul Simon's songs, based on incredibly personal experiences and delivered in the manner of someone who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with the effect of those experiences. Each word, each syllable, every single intonation is uttered with unflinching honesty and candour, so much so that it is almost too much to bear. And unlike many of his contemporaries Simon affords his words the time and space they need to make an impact on the listener. This might sound like a silly statement but arguably the best thing about his voice is that you can hear and understand every single word. Much of this is down to the album's pitch-perfect production: every instrument is given room to breathe. In a similar manner to the aforementioned Songs in the Key of Life there is a hell of a lot going on in these songs, so much so that I had to pause the music more than once to ask myself “what on earth was that sound?” At one point I thought I heard the gentle hooves of horses as they meandered down a country lane. During another I was sure there were some cow-bells ringing in the distance. Had Simon spent some time on a farm during the making of this album? But the point is that you can hear all these sounds and tones, as mysterious as they may be. There is no clamour, everything has its place, and knows its place.

The star-turn, and the most important instrument of all, is his voice however, his voice, and the words that come out of it. Despite this album being forty years old it speaks to the listener and taps into the things going on in your own little world. Who among us hasn't recalled our little towns? Those places which hold so many memories, as many of them unwanted as cherished? I don't know where Paul Simon grew up. But I know it was somewhere many miles from here, and I know he grew up there long before I was born. And yet he may aswell be talking about my little town during the album's second song. While he wanders the streets of his birthplace I recall the fields and lane-ways of the little village in which I spent my formative years. And isn't that what song-writing is all about, connecting with the listener, taking them to places they haven't been to in years?

Even an intensely personal song like I Do It for your Love resonates deeply. We've all watched as once beautiful relationships have turned sour before our eyes, that feeling of helplessness as what we once thought unbreakable sunders into a thousand tiny pieces. Simon taps into that, the sheer normality of it all, sharing a cold, stocking up on orange juice, and then pulls it from under our feet with a simple metaphor that we can all relate to “Found a rug, In an old junk shop, I brought it home to you, Along the way the colours ran, The orange bled the blue.” We don't need to be told what happened, it's all there for us to see. The album's biggest hit, the one which garnered Simon the most success, is Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover. Much of this is down to its insanely catchy chorus, the humorous rhyming of names as he recites some of the ways in which you can actually leave your lover. But it is the song's measured, considered verses which capture the heart. Once more Simon is conversational, almost jocular as he recounts a discourse which we can only presume is fictitious. It almost comes as a disappointment, a couple of tracks later, when he reveals that he has suffered “a long streak of bad luck” but he “pray(s) it's gone at last.” As much as we hope he can overcome this difficult period in his life we find ourselves praying that it doesn't affect his output. More break-ups, more mid-life crises, that's what we want. Because that way we'll get to listen to some great music. 

That song, Gone at Last, is quite incongruous when taken in comparison with the rest of the tracks. An ode to Motown's golden era, complete with a soul diva and blazing rhythm sections, it depicts Simon as a troubadour, a travelling Wilbury capable of entertaining audiences at the drop of a hat. Any concerns that he might be going all cheerful on us are quickly dispelled in the album's next track (arguably its high-point), Some Folks Lives Roll Easy. Once more Simon bridges the gap between monied musician and impoverished fanatic. He may have all the trappings of fame but he, just like us, has found himself literally praying to God for salvation, for a way out of the pit of despair he now finds himself in. And yet, unlike all the tragic depressives whose music was an escape from the harsh reality of their worlds, Simon's lament offers solace and hope. This is not a man on the edge of reason, he is just someone who occasionally slips and needs a helping hand as he clambers back to his feet.

Such is the personal nature of this album that it comes as a shock when the one-on-one reverie is broken. Yes Phoebe Snow makes her presence felt on Gone at Last, but even that feels like a friend of Paul's has come over for tea and ended jamming the night away with him. But on the album's final track, Silent Eyes, an entire symphony interrupts what I had grown to believe was an inter-personal relationship. Their arrival is not unwelcome, merely unexpected. But this is what the album needs, a final flourish, an epic, bombastic song to round it off in style. Don't let the grand scale of this track fool you though, this is another lesson in melancholy, rounded off by the hitting of a note I hadn't realised Simon could reach. This is his departing battle-cry, you can almost envisage him throwing his mic to the floor as he completes the note, declaring himself done and walking out of the studio, “my work here is done.” And yes it is done, it is done in quite magisterial style. I may never be able to return to the 1970s and experience it first-hand, but thanks to Paul Simon I may never need to. Because here, in this album, I have a piece, admittedly a small piece but a piece of nonetheless, of that decade's history. But more than that I have a piece of him, a piece of the man himself. That he is so willing to give it, and to so many, says more about him than I ever could.