Pity the pop-rock performer: If success comes to him, it normally comes too early. He tends to leave school young and half-educated, then find himself anointed as a god and redefined, before he has fully defined himself in the first place, by seas of rapture and Dionysian indulgence. Small wonder, then, that he often becomes fixated on the self as the supreme object of study.
Paul Simon, who this week announced his farewell concert tour, perfectly entitled “Homeward Bound,” carried the advantage of never becoming a god: Small and clerkish, he reflected where others thundered or urged or exclaimed. Now 76 and never having mistaken himself for a deity, he acknowledges his own mortality.
Bob Dylan, Simon’s only rival for the title of pre-eminent American lyricist of the rock-pop idiom, won acclaim as a Cubist, breaking down experience into a Picasso collage of planes and colors and strange jagged pieces. And yet, in the emotional impact of its lyrics, I’d say Dylan’s finest album is the Simon-esque Blood on the Tracks. Simon is the more adventurous artist, the one who dares frequently to venture into that risky, rejected area in the immediate vicinity of the heart. He’s like a photographer who takes uncannily revealing snapshots of ordinary people and settings, Walker Evans with a guitar. Intensely observed faces and settings are frozen in the moment: the man in the gabardine suit who actually looked nothing like a spy (“America”); “The Boxer,” who “carries the reminders of ev’ry glove that laid him down”; “Duncan,” who was “born in the boredom and the chowder”; the father who, in “Slip Slidin’ Away,” longed to tell his son “all the reasons for the things he’d done” but after coming a long way to do so, drew back at the last moment, “kissed his boy as he lay sleeping / and turned around and headed home again.” The same song makes a woman indelible in only eight lines as Simon captures her weary, wary reductionism: “A good day ain’t got no rain / A bad day’s when I lie in bed and think of things that might’ve been.”
Rarely has Simon ventured into the realm of the apocalyptic (“The Sounds of Silence”) or the surreal (“My Little Town”). He’s happy to be the bard of the bus trip. Is there a more evocative record of restless, low-budget peregrination than those dual anthems of wandering, “America” and “Homeward Bound”? Is there a more perfect verb for the party-on-the-stoops New York City energy of Simon’s youth than “seeping,” as in “It was late in evening, and all the music’s seeping through”?
Simon is often described as a poet, but this is not quite right. Though poetry may have begun as an oral tradition, for hundreds of years it has been most at home on the printed page. Reading verse allows for the reader to choose his own pace, to decide which words to give more weight, to re-read again and again. Sung lyrics can’t be slowed or stopped to be interrogated as the lines of T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens can. Being oral, they shy away when made too pretty, and in his early songs, on the first, acoustic Simon & Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., you can sense Simon struggling to grasp this before he learned the virtues of reduction and restraint. He excels at those clean, crystaline images, at folding character, mood, and setting into a line or two. “Darling Lorraine” (2000), for example, covers two lives in seven minutes: It starts with its narrator, Frank, working up the courage to speak to a girl named Lorraine, sees them through a marriage that turns hostile (“What, you don’t like the way I chew?”), and speeds on into decline and departure: “Her hands like wood / The doctor was smiling but the news wasn’t good.” At the end the love comes full circle: “All the trees were washed with April rain / And the moon in the meadow / Took darling Lorraine.”
Simon’s most underrated asset is a singing voice that absolutely matches his writing style — plaintive, modest, sincere, without airs or adornment. If Dylan was so aware of his public identity that he frantically reached for one mask after another, Simon has enjoyed a disarming ease with himself. He never gave off the slightest hint that he longed to change the world. Nor did he wallow in angst, anger, and self-destruction. Instead there was quiet contemplation. “Maybe I think too much,” he sang on “Think Too Much,” from the beautifully wounded 1983 album Hearts and Bones.
Simon’s most underrated asset is a singing voice that absolutely matches his writing style — plaintive, modest, sincere, without airs or adornment.
The habit of coolly taking precise measurements stayed with him even at what must have been the most crushing times in his life, as when his marriage to his second wife, Carrie Fisher, crumbled. “She comes back to tell me she’s gone / As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed,” he sang in “Graceland,” and in “Hearts and Bones” we knew immediately who he meant by “One and one-half wandering Jews” (Fisher was half-Jewish) who “returned to their natural coasts [to] speculate who had been damaged the most.”
It is rare for Simon to stray in the direction of the grand or epic, but when he did so on perhaps his most ambitious song, 1973’s “American Tune,” the effect was mesmerizing, a melding of prophecy and prayer. Built upon a Bach melody and fraught with strange imagery (flying and dying and “the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea”), the song limns a seemingly ever-present feature of the American psyche, the conviction that we were better at some unspecified earlier time and are now left to “wonder what’s gone wrong.” Yet there is something forward-looking in the melody, a hopeful quality. By song’s end, the narrator wouldn’t disagree with Tocqueville’s observation that “the great advantage of the Americans consists in their being able to commit faults which they may afterwards repair.” Intoning the phrase “It’s all right” four times, Simon’s narrator notes that “tomorrow’s going to be another working day” and suggests things might look better in the morning: “That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest.” It’s a song of fond frustration, full of dread and wonder.
Back in 1968, Simon announced his calling in six words: “I’ve come to look for America.” Half a century later and heading into retirement, he can conclude the search with pride, having created an essential American body of work.