Deep Album Cuts Vol. 117: Paul Simon

There was a time when I thought I might make a Simon & Garfunkel deep cuts playlist before one for Paul Simon's solo career, or even try to cram them together. But that was a time when I'd spent more time with Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and The Best of Simon & Garfunkel than any solo LP save for maybe Graceland. I'll go back to the duo at some point to honor their smaller catalog, but right now, I wanted to talk Paul Simon, since he's winding up his farewell tour this month, and releasing what may be his final studio album, In The Blue Light, this week.

Paul Simon deep album cuts (Spotify playlist):

1. Run That Body Down
2. Homeless (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo)
3. You're Kind
4. St. Judy's Comet
5. Insomniac's Lullaby
6. All Around The World or The Myth Of Fingerprints (with Los Lobos)
7. Wartime Prayers
8. I'd Do It For Your Love
9. Killer Wants To Go To College
10. I Know What I Know (with General M.D.Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters)
11. Think Too Much (b)
12. One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor
13. Love
14. Can't Run But
15. How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns
16. Pigs, Sheep And Wolves
17. Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War
18. The Teacher
19. Darling Lorraine
20. Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy
21. Question For The Angels

Track 1 from Paul Simon (1972)
Tracks 4 and 12 from There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973)
Tracks 3, 8 and 20 from Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
Track 15 from One-Trick Pony (1980)
Tracks 11 and 17 from Hearts And Bones (1983)
Tracks 2, 6 and 10 from Graceland (1986)
Track 14 from The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)
Track 9 from Songs From The Capeman (1997)
Tracks 13, 16, 18 and 19 from You're The One (2000)
Track 7 from Surprise (2006)
Track 21 from So Beautiful Or So What (2011)
Track 5 from Stranger To Stranger (2016)

In The Blue Light is an unusual project, new re-recordings of 10 songs from across Paul Simon's solo career, none of them hit singles and few from his most famous albums. So I decided to just go ahead and make the second half of this playlist the original versions: tracks 12 through 21 are the same songs that are on In The Blue Light, in the same sequence, for easy comparing and contrasting. The downside of that, of course, is that I let Paul make half of the choices for me, and I definitely would not have picked four songs from You're The One (although I happened upon a used copy of that album when it came out and listened to it a bit, so I do have some fondness toward it). "One Man's Ceiling" and "Some Folks' Lifes" and "Rene And Georgette" are great songs, though, I would've probably picked those anyway. It's kind of funny that Paul Simon chose to cap his career with a re-recording of "Question For The Angels," the 2011 song which features a weird tangent about a clothing billboard with Jay-Z on it.

I was glad to include music right up through his last original collection of songs, 2016's Stranger To Stranger, because I really enjoyed that album and marveled that he made it over 50 years after his earliest classics. As someone who sometimes has trouble getting his son to sleep and sometimes has trouble getting himself to sleep, I relate to both "St. Judy's Comet" and "Insomniac's Lullaby."

But what's really impressive is how long Simon's reign as a major artist lasted. From Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends in 1968 through 2000's You're The One, Paul Simon made 11 albums, and 7 of them were nominated at the Grammys for Album of the Year (3 of them won). Even taking into account that the Grammys are kind to artists of Simon's stature, that's a remarkable streak, particularly since most of those albums are genuinely great or at least pretty good. Of the remaining 4 that weren't nominated, 3 were kind of notable flops -- One-Trick Pony and Songs From The Capeman were attached to Simon's ill-fated ventures into feature film and Broadway, respectively, while Hearts And Bones failed to generate a hit at the time but eventually became a cult favorite of his catalog. The 1972 self-titled album didn't get a nomination either, but that one was pretty successful.

Of course, Graceland looms large over Simon's solo career. Increasingly I've been fascinated with the 1983-'86 period in which Thriller and MTV ushered in a new era of blockbuster albums and so many established stars from the '60s and '70s released comeback albums and/or their biggest sellers ever. Most of these albums -- Born In The U.S.A., Let's Dance, 1984, EliminatorSo, Invisible Touch, Brothers In Arms, Private Dancer, Who's Zoomin' Who?, Heartbeat City -- are bright and shiny and modern and dripping in synths and gated snare drums. So by that token Graceland stands out with its acoustic sounds and subtle fusions of folk sounds from different cultures (although there are some big snare drums here and there). There's still a lot of healthy debate around Graceland, dating back to when it was released, when South African apartheid was still in place and "I ain't gonna play Sun City" had just been a rallying cry for a lot of Simon's peers less than a year earlier. Of course, now, the biggest lingering scandal around the album is the Los Lobos appearance -- they came to Simon's studio, played a work in progress, and then were pissed to find that it was on his album with his lyrics and no writing credit for them (I have to wonder why they played a song in his session that they wanted to use on their own album, but hey).

Since Graceland, Simon has continued the album's globetrotting aesthetic, working with musicians from many countries and cultures (although there have been some great exceptions, like the Brian Eno collaborations on Surprise, where he returns to more of a pop/rock center). But I've come to appreciate both how much his voice as a songwriter remains indelible no matter what sounds he pairs it with, and how much rhythm has always been a part of his music. Even the '70s albums have a lot of rattling polyrhythms and latin accents, and it's clear that he uses drums as a guide to the meter and phrasing of his lyrics. I kind of think of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as a yin and yang, two folk singers who became iconic pop stars, and they complement each other in a lot of ways: Dylan the raspy, mysterious midwestern student of Americana vs. Simon the cosmopolitan New York polymath who marries his sweet melodies and wry lyrics to sounds from all over the world. I often feel like I go to certain artists because they've got really brilliant lyrics, or really catchy melodies, or infectious rhythms, but it's usually one or the other, not all of the above. Paul Simon, though, he's got the rhythm and the rhyme and the tunes all down cold.
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