Paul Simon may have been pegged as a folkie early in his career, but his true roots were in doo-wop and the secularized gospel of ’50s rhythm and blues.
Since splitting with childhood chum Art Garfunkel in 1970, Simon’s best work inevitably has found him connecting his tightly constricted persona with the visceral release of Black and Latin rhythms: the Jamaican reggae of “Mother and Child Reunion,” the gospel ecstacy of “Loves Me Like a Rock,” the salsa breakdown of “Late in the Evening,” the world-beat explorations of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, and the Puerto Rican grooves of his ill-fated stage musical, The Capeman.
After Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones stiffed on the charts, he came to the realization that modern ears responded more to rhythm than melody, which inspired his decision to collaborate with South African musicians for Graceland. His latest release, Surprise, continues his rhythmic fixation, but this time in the form of cold, electronic beats from British avant-garde pioneer Brian Eno. Since Simon’s wispy voice is easily overpowered, and prone to a certain cerebral chilliness, the Simon-Eno combination could have easily gone wrong. But Eno’s settings help to pull Simon out of his shell, and with tracks such as the implausibly funky “Outrageous” (in which the sexagenarian Simon affects something approaching a grandfatherly rap) and the philosophical “How Can You Live in the Northeast?”, he sounds surprisingly fresh for someone who made his first record a half-century ago.
Mon, Jul 24
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Simon will always be a bit off-putting. Neither irrepressibly buoyant nor ferociously angry, he most often comes across as a muted brooder. When he hasn’t been wracked with writer’s block and feelings of utter uselessness, he’s also revealed himself to be a considerable egomaniac (in a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, he brushed aside comparisons with the Rolling Stones by saying they were never in the same league as Simon & Garfunkel). But while he’s spent much of his career in the shadows of flashier, more rebellious figures (not to mention Garfunkel’s lunar-eclipse fro), he’s quietly built one of the most consistently sturdy catalogs in pop music, a collection of songs that can’t be denied.
- Gilbert Garcia