Saturday, August 20, 2005


The virtues of age
Why Paul Simon’s new album is so important

Many music fans, especially the younger ones, snort when they see a sixties or seventies icon release a new album. The assumption invariably is – why aren’t they adhering to their “sell-by” date? What could he possibly have to say now, and in any case, how is it relevent to us?

Now, while it is true that a lot of those artists do cash in on the nostalgia among the older lot (like CS&N, for example), more than a handful of them are doing something for popular music that other artists are simply not equipped to do. The few great singer-songwriter icons are mining unchartered territory in rock – the concerns of ageing and the worldview it brings. Rock is the only significant art form in the world today that does not have a body of work that spans the cradle to the grave, as it were. Why? Because rock and roll is barely into its sixth decade; it’s quite simply not had enough time yet. But we’ve entered that zone now and it’s getting better all the time.

Unfashionable as it may sound, the music scene today is actually more vibrant and meaningful than it has ever been. Yes, more than the sixties and seventies even. It’s just that the trash has become mainstream today, which was not the case in the sixties. The best music is happening (oops, wrong word) away from the commercial gaze, away from the inanities FM and music videos perpetuate (particularly in India). And a lot of that music is emanating from the assured hands. It’s not very different from great literature or films in that respect – the world always awaits the next Bellow or Marquez title, doesn’t it, or the next Scorcese or Spielberg movie? But that’s where the similarities end between the music and fiction/film businesses. It’s not inconceivable to have a 50-year-old debut novelist or film director, but there are no such parallels in music. Hence, the only people we have to guide us through these aesthetic periods musically, are the great songwriters of our times. It’s not a coincidence that practically all of them are singer-songwriters. And Paul Simon is among the cream.

Now, in his 60th year, after over a decade of taking inspiration from the music of other continents (resulting in two classic albums), Paul Simon has gone back to the simplicity of his first two post-Garfunkel albums in the seventies (both of which are classics too) with his new album – You’re The One. Perhaps a return to the basics, yet the enrichment of his musical forays is still evident. The simple guitar-bass-percussion arrangements are beautifully garnished, even defined at times, by the other instruments around it and the rhythms that emerge subtly. The quiet, even unassuming, tunes belie their strength. Simon’s trademark calm sense of balance and his unsentimental but very marked compassion have never found better expression than on the 11 songs of this album. Added to this is something else that has never been as palpable – a terrific, wry sense of humour lacing many of the songs. It’s as if he’s become conscious of not taking himself too seriously as he grows older.

The album begins with the beautiful “That’s Where I Belong” (which, in turn, begins with a very Indian-sounding bamboo flute) where Simon establishes what is important in his life. “Darling Lorraine” movingly (and with humour) traces a marriage from courtship to discord to death, “Old” jauntily celebrates the inevitable, the title track is wryly accusatory yet philosophical, “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves” has a grandfatherly playfulness yet is allegorical, songs like “Love”, “Look At That”, “Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears” and “Hurricane Eye” brim with gentle wisdom and humour. The hymn-like “Quiet” is about death, where for him “it’s a time of solitude/ of peace without illusions/ when the perfect circle/ marries all beginnings and conclusions”. Ultimately, the album itself seems to have that cycle – beginning with living fully to an acceptable end, and all that the human condition throws up in between, faced with dignity, love and humour.

Lyrically, this is easily Paul Simon’s finest album. Musically, though the songs take a while to grow and enforce their hold, though sometimes you can hear echos of his earlier songs, this album is as good as his best work, as valid as anything he’s ever done. And that’s really as good as it gets.

April 2001


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