Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Period of Grace

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones. All these years later, I still can’t figure out what on earth possessed this great American tunesmith to write a song about allergies, an ode to cars, and a ditty about numbers, as he did on this wildly uneven 1983 record. Was he secretly auditioning for Joe Raposo's old job at "Sesame Street"? Though he’d always flirted with novelty material ("Paranoia Blues," "One Man's Ceiling," even "Kodachrome" and "50 Ways"), the subject matter and lyrics, not to mention the saggy sound, of a fair amount of the tracks here betray nothing so much as creative exhaustion. After the somewhat unwieldy, often brilliant but cool-to-the-touch concept album/film One Trick Pony, he seemed to be flailing for something to sing about, or a reason to write songs at all. Even the good tunes here--the ambling title track, a kind of middle-aged sequel to "Kathy's Song"; the warmly glowing "Rene and Georgette Magritte"; the sidelong memoriam to John Lennon, "The Late Great Johhny Ace"--are sad, hollowed-out, apologetic-sounding folk pop. It’s true, this is not the case with the convincingly upbeat "Think Too Much," which sounds in hindsight like the missing link between this awkward middle period and the globe-trotting guitar pop that was about to make Simon a star all over again.

Still, I have a big soft spot for this burnished, melancholic record--his first new release at the time since I'd became a teenage fan of his lapidary songcraft--because it accompanied my own searching, introverted high school years. Though I generally remember that as a happy time, in fact, this record reminds me like few other artifacts of those days how much I partook of the solitary, self-dramatizing introspection that can be, in moderation, one of the satisfactions of that rough/tender age. I think part of his appeal for me, then as now, was that when he wasn't being weirdly trivial, as in "Allergies" or "Cars Are Cars" (actual title), he was singing with a kind of wry, quietly nervy circumspection about grown-up problems, about small ironies and serendipities, about spiritual conundrums; learning to love this music accordingly made me feel grown-up, too. And it occurs to me that even since his days with Garfunkel, Simon was always an old soul with an ear for young music--at least one reason why his most recent release, So Beautiful or So What, recorded in his 70th year, is among his best. His actual age is catching up with his spiritual age.

Certainly a part of the appeal of Hearts and Bones, too, was that literally no one else I knew in high school had ever heard of this record, let alone listened to it. It was my music. Then, in 1986, I went off to college, and Simon went to South Africa, and before I knew it, he belonged to everyone again. His underlying craft and lyrical preoccupations hadn't changed all that much, really, but mbaqanga--and later, batucada--clearly gave him the jolt he needed after this downer.

Comments:
Al Rose Nicely done, Rob
Greg Keller Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it's true.
David Tobocman One of my favorites. I love an underdog. Nice article.
Mary Kate Karr Petras "Cars Are Cars" is the one (and I mean only one) Paul Simon track I routinely skip. Not so crazy about "Allergies" or one of the "Think Too Much" tracks (can't remember which one), either. But "Rene and Georgette Magritte," "Train in the Distance," "Hearts and Bones" and particularly "Late Great Johnny Ace" formed a core part of my high school listening (just a couple of years behind you, apparently).
Jack Lechner That record is the equivalent of Neil Simon's play "The Star Spangled Girl," which inspired this legendary assessment by Walter Kerr: "Neil Simon, your friendly neighborhood gagman, hasn't had an idea for a play this season, but he's gone ahead and written one anyway."  

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