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A great songwriter at his best, what more can I say?
on 24 January 2004
Paul Simon's first solo album is hardly a debut, since he had already scaled the heights of musical achievement with his partnership with Art Garfunkel, as the sole songwriter and creative talent of that particular pairing. But despite having already penned some of the most popular and successful songs of a decade already saturated with classic tunes, Paul Simon had yet to explore his full potential, and this album represents the best example of just what the man was capable of. Simple, subtle, and at times truly brilliant, this album demonstrates another side of Paul Simon's huge and unique talent. Comparable to the quality of anything he ever recorded previously, this album is far more personal, and has a back-to-basics approach that would now be considered 'de riguer'.
'Peace Like A River' is simply stunning. Akin to 'The Only Living Boy In New York', the harmonies here are to die for. No coincidience then that the harmony vocals (in both cases) were performed by Simon himself. 'Papa Hobo' is a similarly acoustic number with a great lyric, and is a joy to behold. 'Armistice Day' somehow feels like the title track (or centrepiece) of the album, but I don't really know why. Maybe because it encapsulates everything that this album is about... simplicity, a vague but witty lyric and instrumental virtuosity. 'Run That Body Down' is a personal tale (but one that is easily identifiable with) of a person close to a mid-life crisis, but never gets too heavy or serious, it's a light stroll of a song that breezes by whilst making you stop and think at the same time.
Then of course there are the singles, although prior to having this album, both were unfamiliar to me... "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" is a brave song. Musically a bit similar to something Neil Sedaka might have done (stay with this people...), the real brilliance is in the lyric. Also with "Mother And Child Reunion", the lyrical content is deeper than first meets the ear. A strange and dark lyric, it's really a song about death and bereavement, which is oddly offset against the liveliness of the music and Carribean backing vocals. 'Duncan' is very similar to 'El Condor Pasa' from 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (as it features Los Incas on panpipes) but is an altogether more personal, more witty and less daft song all round. I particularly love the line "My Father was a fisherman, my Mother was a Fisherman's Friend" (I think those capitals are justified!). 'Everything Put Together Falls Apart', 'Paranoid Blues' and 'Hobo Blues' (an instrumental guitar and violin duet with Stephane Grappelli) are also accomplished tracks, but battle hard to make an impact in such illustrious company.
End it all with the magnificent 'Congratulations', an ironic (but not bitter) song about the increasing incidence (and likelihood) of marital dissolution. Sounds like a great song when you describe it like that (not!), but infact it is a real highlight of this amazing album. More resigned to reality than despairing, it is still a moving song. A sad lyric coupled with subtle electric piano and restrained Hammond organ (and of course Simon's guitar), musically this is as accomplished as anything Paul Simon has ever recorded. Lyrically, it also encapsulates every insecurity a man (or woman) could ever have about their relationships, and ends with the rueful lyric "I'm hungry for learning, can you answer me please/Can a man and a woman, live together in peace?"... I wonder...
In summary, there's not a weak track here. On the contrary, this is some of the best songwriting of the entire 1970's, and (for that matter) all time. A welcome departure from the over-produced S&G years, this is the real Paul Simon, and this album is a testament to the fact that he is one of the greatest songwriters of our times.