This album is a welcome surprise from one of the finest songwriters of our time. Since the career-best Graceland, Paul Simon`s releases have either been uplifting and inspirational like Rhythm Of The Saints, slightly incoherent yet brilliant collections of songs such as the mostly superb You`re The One, or muddled near-misses like Surprise, his last rather misconceived effort. To call this a return to form is merely to speak the truth.
He sounds rejuvenated - at 70 already! - on a brief set of heartfelt songs on which his writing, singing and musical skills (he has always been a quietly virtuosic guitarist) are at their bright & shining best. At first I really didn`t like the cover, but looking at it closer one can see that it complements the esoteric yet generously compassionate, humane nature of the songs within.
The soundworld Paul creates here is both eclectic and spare, with instruments such as kora, tabla and glockenspiel adding subtle textures to the already beautifully crafted songs. There`s no dud song, nothing that goes on too long, no songs that don`t quite come off, and the whole thing is produced with the accent on clarity and a brightly warm immediacy.
To highlight one song: the opener, Getting Ready For Christmas Day, starts the whole thing off in glorious style, overlaying Paul`s vocal onto an old sermon recorded as long ago as 1941 by one Rev JM Gates, complete with scattered congregation calls & cries. It not only works, but is a burst of joyous ebullience that puts the listener in a very good place for the rest of this supremely listenable album.
I think this is, by a whisker, Paul Simon`s most wholly satisfying album since Graceland. He is quite possibly the most underrated songwriter around these days, but on these ten songs he proves he`s still very much a contender. It`s not only as a guitarist that he`s been undervalued either, his voice over the years - especially
since the split with Garfunkel - being one of the most understatedly expressive in all popular music. The Sam Cooke of folk-pop...?
This is also a lovingly packaged disc, the booklet containing not only the songs` lyrics and a few thankyous from PS to various people, but - and this must be almost unique - an advance encomium from none other than Elvis Costello, whose appreciation of these songs is as effusive as it is obviously sincere.
He`s not wrong, as this album is sheer joy from beginning to end, sometimes blue, always dazzling.