With his erstwhile partner Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon formed half of perhaps the most famous singer-songwriter duo in the history of American popular music. Together, Simon & Garfunkel rode the early wave of folk-pop emergence in the1960s. It could be argued, in fact, that they caused the wave, bringing broad commercial success to a musical form that combined elements of American folk rhythm with early rock-and-roll back beats. After a well-documented rift between the two, they went their separate ways around 1970 (except for ersatz attempts at reunion appearances), after only five studio albums. Together, Simon & Garfunkle were known for soulful, contemplative lyrics sung with seamless harmony. Songs such as “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound,” “I Am a Rock,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “The Boxer” are instantly recognizable by generations of Americans.
After they were no longer “Simon & Garfunkel,” Paul Simon’s career continued the same trajectory that had been launched by their popular success as a duo, with Art Garfunkel gaining more modest success. As almost all the songs on the duet albums were written by Simon, this is not surprising. Thus, his breakthrough solo albums, “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (1972) and the Grammy-winning “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975), firmly established his solo career as a pop superstar, which he sustained at least through 1988’s “Graceland” and another Grammy award.
At the age of 81, Simon’s light has faded in recent years, and he has suffered some of the health problems that attend aging. And, as he demonstrates in his surprising new album, “Seven Psalms,” he is thinking about what comes next.
Life’s deep issues
“Seven Psalms” is not like any album Simon has made before. It is actually one long (33 minute) track, with seven distinct movements, morphing from one to the other with no clear musical break; only slight pauses, distinguishable by subtle shifts in tone and melody and the first line of each. While there are occasional background string and vocal accompaniments, the only two instruments are really Simon’s voice and guitar. Both in form and content, this a thoughtful album by a man who is contemplating seriously and deeply issues of life, death and what’s to come.
Lest there be any doubt that Simon is considering life’s journey toward mortality and the possibilities it portends, he begins the first movement, “The Lord”: “I’ve been thinking about the great migration / Noon and night they leave the flock / And I imagine their destination / Meadow grass, jagged rock.” And later in the same movement: “Tears and Flowers / Dry over time / Memory leaves us / Melody and Rhyme / When the cold wind blows.” In the fourth movement, “Your Forgiveness,” he intones: “I, I have my reasons to doubt / A white light eases the pain / Two billion heartbeats and out / Or does it all begin again?” These and other lyrics throughout the album portray a man writing serious music about important questions in thoughtful, poignant language.
“The Lord,” whatever that means for Simon, broods over the entire album. He suggests various attributes of the Lord, many of which are dense suggestions of serious theological and philosophical propositions. “The Lord / The Lord is the earth I ride on / The Lord is the face in the atmosphere / The path I slip and slide on.” And then later: “The Lord is a virgin forest / The Lord is a forest ranger / The Lord is a meal for the poor / A welcome door to the stranger.” Simon returns to these litanies about “The Lord” in several later movements of “Seven Psalms,” suggesting he is never far from any of the contemplative movements that follow. In “Your Forgiveness,” for example, “The Lord is a puff of smoke / That disappears when the wind blows / The Lord is my personal joke / My reflection in the window.”
Exploring the four last things
It would be too much to suggest that the album is an expressly religious work. To be sure, it explores religious and moral themes and problems. And it is probably better to describe the album as exploring the margins of doubt than probing the boundaries of faith. But, of course, it’s a shared border. One is always close to the former when he is at the latter.
It is tempting to compare “Seven Psalms” to Leonard Cohen’s classic last album “You Want It Darker.” For my taste, Cohen’s is the more sophisticated of the two, built upon a longer history of religious and philosophical struggle. But this is not to diminish the excellence of “Seven Psalms.” It demands to be taken seriously as an artistic exploration of what we Catholics call the four last things, and how our lives in the here and now impact our attitude toward those things. “I want to / Believe in / A dreamless transition,” Simon sings near the end of the last movement, “Wait.” And he continues, “I don’t want / To be near / My dark intuition.”
If nothing else, “Seven Psalms” is an expression of Paul Simon’s restless heart, and we know where that has famously led another pilgrim. This is not to compare Simon to St. Augustine. Rather, it is to suggest that many have gone before him to help clear the pilgrim’s way. “Seven Psalms” is a worthy and worthwhile musical consideration of that path.