Whenever pop songwriters venture in search of profundity, they tend to overreach themselves, their lofty ambitions toppled by hubris and laughable pretention. Not so rock icon Paul Simon, who’s been writing astutely crafted songs, poetic, questioning and rich in meaning, for almost half a century; remarkably, his 12th solo studio album finds his gifts undimmed, even sharpened, by time.
There is a tendency among music critics to proclaim each new album from an elder statesperson as their best since (take your pick). But this must surely rank as one of Simon’s most affecting post-Garfunkel achievements.
Conceptually bound by the biggest themes of all – love, God, mortality, and our place in universe – this deceptively casual yet carefully focused collection never struggles under the weight of its ambition. Instead, Simon delivers these ruminative sermons with wit, warmth and wisdom. Despite virtually every song being haunted by notions of divinity and the attendant spectre of death, they’re realised with such shimmering lightness of touch that the overall effect is surprisingly life-affirming.
"Most folks they don’t get when I’m joking / But hopefully somebody will," he sings, in that conversational, ageless voice, on the almost free-associative Love Is Eternal Sacred Light, which somehow encompasses the origins of the universe, suicide bombers, and the exultant freedom of life on the open road. Now almost 70, it’s as if he has so much to say but with little time remaining (the album clocks in at just over 30 minutes, with not a moment wasted). In the same song he declares that love is "free from the shackles of time", while in the poignant Dazzling Blue he thanks God that he found his wife before it was too late.
When death does come knocking in The Afterlife, rather than bringing an end to earthly trials, it presents a bureaucratic chore where "you’ve got to fill out a form first, then you wait in the line." Even such deities as Buddha, Moses and Gene Vincent must endure this process: the ultimate joke.
Driven by Simon’s uniquely percussive acoustic guitar, and with his world music leanings embedded naturally rather than overtly, this beguiling album shows him to have lost none of his ability for finding universal truths within the guise of introspection. It’s a profound statement from a master of his craft.
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