It is discomfiting, almost painful, to look back over something someone else created and realize that someone else was you.
-- Paul Simon
It's better to burn out than fade away.
-- Neil Young
There are angels in the architecture, Paul Simon once observed.
Frozen cherubs stolid in their Raphaelite postures. Ageless as rocks watching. They'll probably be here 33 centuries on, if the end comes with a whimper.
Paul Simon won't. Unless Kendall Roy actually knows something we don't, probably none of us will. And if we are, won't we be transposed into silicon? Just beeps and boops sliding through some quantum nonspace.
What 81-year-old artist isn't confronting the inevitable? Both the practical and spiritual issues that attend the end. Maybe it's not so much the going but the fear of missing out -- those fat little concrete angels will still be here to witness the next 30 Super Bowls.
If you've done any studying on the subject, you know there is a school of thought that Simon is a nasty man. A little Picasso, probably not nice. I don't have any opinion about that; all I know is that no recording artist -- not Bob, not Bruce, not Joni -- has shaped my worldview as much as this rhythm-singing philosopher from Queens. Even if I was inclined to, I couldn't ignore this new album, the one that's getting all the hype.
Albums don't matter anymore; their age is past and the artists who persist in putting them out are dinosaurs. We're back to 1962 and the single is the lingua franca of the pop world; you drop on TikTok and it gets remixed and spun out into the zeitgeist where maybe it finds purchase.
Albums only make sense if your demo is 55-plus. Albums only make sense if you're targeting vinyl fetishists.
But artists don't care about any of that, and as much of a businessman as Simon could be, he knows the money doesn't convey beyond this realm. He can do what he wants, whether it's sit in the sun or release a quietly stunning song cycle that acknowledges the pettiness of all those earthly arguments as one plunges toward mortality and the uncertainty of the next act.
It's called "Seven Psalms," and if you ever thought, as I did, that the idea of a pop record made by an 81-year-old is insane, it's at the very least an instructive listen.
And if, as I am, you are attuned to the vibrations this particular artist has put out into the air over the years, it might be persuading -- 33 minutes of acoustic balm, with bits of glass embedded.
It starts with bells. And questions. The old ones, the ones Hamlet worried about.
THE OLD DAYS
In the old days, when they didn't have recorded music to wear grooves in the brain, maybe they were better off.
When music was necessarily a transient experience, when every hearing necessarily involved a fresh performance by a live human being, possibly accompanied by genuine instruments, it was quite a different thing to listen. Maybe you didn't run the same risks of being drugged by nostalgia, of being mugged by all the old devils we thought we'd either run off or locked away along with the old songs archived in our heads.
When David composed his psalms -- his sacred songs -- they weren't preserved on wax or as ones and zeroes ("to bes" and "nots"). They were on the wind; the onus was on the listener. You had to be there. Blessed are those who caught Miles and Trane at the Olympia Theatre in Paris on March 21, 1960.
One of the ironies of our youth-obsessed age is that young people generally make bad artists -- or at least immature artists. But rock 'n' roll was a cultural practice that embraced striving amateurism and glorified imperfection. Feeling was more important than technique. Young people were the fodder for rock 'n' roll; it was all teenage kicks and adolescent angst. Young people are romantic, they are pretty -- they can live fast and leave a good-looking corpse, they are Kurt Cobain staring down the black sulfurous shotgun hole, they are hoping to die before they get old.
To twist a James McMurtry line, you can't be old and do that.
But the truth is that artists usually aren't as good at 21 or 23 or 25 as they are at 45 or 50. Go ahead, play your Arthur Rimbaud or Thomas Chatterton card. I'll see you with Leonard Cohen -- and Bob, Bruce, Joni and Paul.
Maybe you can define rock 'n' roll as a young person's game and declare that those over the age of 30 or so who attempt it are bound to look ridiculous whether they deserve to or not but if you manage to avoid doing serious irreversible damage to yourself, you almost have to get smarter and deeper and wiser and better at your craft as you go along.
There are exceptions -- pray you're not one of them. Pray you don't get to a place where some day you look back on what you did and wonder how something so wonderful and right ever came out of your mediocre soul. Far better to look back in horror and embarrassment at your juvenilia, like Paul Simon.
I bet he's embarrassed by "Richard Cory." Maybe even by "Sounds of Silence."
He got better. Good for him.
A SACRED SONG
A psalm is a sacred song or hymn -- especially one among David's famous compendium in the Bible. Scholars say David wrote about 73 of the 150 psalms, and there are still arguments about whether they should be viewed as individual hymns of praise, gratitude and lament or as a unified hymnbook written with intent and purpose.
Simon obviously intends his as a unitary work, a suite comprised of movements. The only way you can download or buy "Seven Psalms" is as a complete work, presented without breaks, which in this age of TikTok and Facebook reels and attenuated attention spans feels almost aggressively retro. Simon wants you to listen to it front to back, in one sitting. (Cue the A&R guy: "I don't hear the single.")
It starts out with an unfortunate cliché -- chiming celestial bells that sound as though they could have been swirled up by an Ableton Live-enabled teen challenged to come up with an original psalm. But that's just a moment of throat-clearing. The bells will be back later, but with more juice and mystery, and Simon's familiar, conversational yet precise phrasing begins telling us all about "the great migration" away from faith and his own perhaps overly optimistic view of God as kind of cosmic Swiss Army knife, cutting both ways: "The Lord is my engineer/The Lord is my record producer" ... alternates with "The covid virus is the Lord."
"All that really matters," he sings in the moviement called "In My Professional Opinion," "Is the one who became us/Anointed and gamed us/With His opinions."
SIMON, NO GARFUNKEL
No offense to Art Garfunkel, who has many times been underrated and unfairly dismissed as a a pretty tenor with a knack for finding the tightest high harmony the chord would allow, but Paul Simon records are better than Simon & Garfunkel records.
Not Artie's fault. Simon & Garfunkel were important. They were folk rockers, they were literate, they were Jewish overachievers from Forest Hills, Queens, hardly pinup boys, hardly the kind of guys that girls go for like they went for John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Simon & Garfunkel were professionals at 15. Their first hit was a wonderfully slight bit of kiddie pop called "Hey, Schoolgirl" (on the mistakenly named Big Records, which almost immediately folded) that landed them a spot on "American Bandstand."
Simon also recorded a few straight rock 'n' roll sides as Jerry Landis, and made at least one record as Tico and the Triumphs, while Art Garfunkel recorded as Artie Garr, a teen idol who never quite took off.
Both were highly motivated and ambitious young men. Simon worked as a song peddler while attending law school and trying to secure a record deal on his own. Garfunkel pursued graduate studies in architecture (hence the reference to the architect in "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" to "all the nights we'd harmonize 'til dawn").
Both came from musical families and were interested in a wide variety of genres besides straight pop, including jazz and classical forms as well as the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.
But Simon & Garfunkel emerged as a folk duo, in part because of Simon's preference for writing on and performing with the acoustic guitar, but largely because there was a certain commercial potential in folk music. Bob Dylan -- who a few years earlier had idolized Bobby Vee -- became a phenomenon in 1961, and the folk boom made strumming and sincerity fashionable.
More than a note of marketing contrivance was evident in the marketing of the first Simon & Garfunkel album, 1963's "Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.," which Columbia announced as a collection of "exciting new sounds in the folk tradition." The cover photograph featured the clean-cut duo in suits and ties in a subway station, the diminutive Simon posing with an acoustic guitar.
The oft-told story is that the album stiffed and the duo dissolved in its wake, with Simon wandering to England where he became a figure in the sympathetic folk boom there.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the boys, a Columbia producer named Tom Wilson added drums and electric guitar to one of the tracks, "The Sound of Silence," and released it as a single. It became a huge hit in 1965; Simon returned from England (where he had recorded "The Paul Simon Songbook" in a single hour in a studio in London's Bond Street) and the duo re-formed. Simon & Garfunkel became one of the signal groups of the '60s, before breaking up for good -- sort of -- in 1971.
While the duo was responsible for a clutch of memorable songs -- "Mrs. Robinson," "Homeward Bound," "America," "The Boxer" -- it now seems clear that Simon really didn't hit his songwriting stride until after he and Garfunkel broke up. His string of solo albums established him as an American composer of significance. After Dylan, he is perhaps the most important singer-songwriter to emerge from the candy-colored rubble of '50s rock 'n' roll.
OLD MAN SIMON'S PSALMS
And like Dylan and others in that second wave of rock 'n' roll who figured out that pop music could not only be a viable career choice for grown-ups but a legitimate way of wrestling with grown-up doubts and anxieties, Simon is now an old man. A wise old man, maybe, but at least an interesting old man with the wherewithal to make exactly the sort of music that he wants to make. And so we might receive "Seven Psalms" as an authentic representation of what's on Simon's mind as well as a reflection of his taste.
Produced by Simon and Kyle Crusham, it's gorgeously arranged, intricate, delicate and featuring mostly acoustic instruments, with Simon taking on a lot of the playing. (He seems to have found a way to manage the arthritis that hampered his guitar playing decades ago.) He's close mic-ed, so that you can hear the occasional squeak of his fingers on the fretboard, and subtle changes in the attitude of his guitar, the way the sound hole creeps close, then slips back a little. (It might be a good idea to listen on headphones.)
Simon has a vast vocabulary of chords -- augmented and diminished -- that push most of the suite toward jazz, though the straightforward blues of "My Professional Opinion" can be read in context as a profession of faith. Simon isn't sure of much, and he harbors his regrets (on "Trail of Volcanoes" he sings: "The pity is/The damage that's done/Leaves so little time/For amends") but he's sure of his own secular salvation.
"Love Is Like a Braid" is an undisguised love song to his wife Edie Brickell ("I lived a life of pleasant sorrows/Until the real deal came"), who later shows up to sing with Simon on the final movements, "The Sacred Harp" and "Wait."
The pairing of the voices resolves into warmth, rebutting some of the more acerbic stand-up routines Simon ran through earlier. They end the album on an un-ironic "amen" and we are left with the obvious, painful question: Will this be the last we hear from Paul Simon?
Is this his "You Want It Darker" or "Blackstar" (to cite, respectively, the final Leonard Cohen and David Bowie records that seem to have been recorded as ultimate career cappers)?
It feels that way, though artists are by definition curious and restless, and there's no reason to believe Simon isn't already scratching away at a new suite of songs. Those of us who grew up believing that pop music could matter in the same way as other modes of artistic expression might hope so. Because the dirty secret is that rock 'n' roll does forget -- every generation sends its own heroes up the pop charts. You grow up, you realize even Dionysus must occasionally take a break from three-chord sugar shock and contemplate the greater mystery.
So we edge away from rock 'n' roll. We move away from it even though we don't acknowledge that we're keeping our distance -- we still call our music rock 'n' roll long after we've removed ourselves from the blast furnace of the Clash or Little Richard or the young Elvis Presley. We understand it's not a way of life but a lifestyle.
"Seven Psalms" is not a lifestyle product, it's not a show-biz act. It's serious and beautiful and compelling in ways we don't commonly find in pop music. It's a mature work.
One to stand with those angels.
"Seven Psalms" video trailer: