It must be a challenge for Paul Simon to put together a band when he embarks on one of his infrequent tours. Imagine the challenge for the musicians. They must replicate the '60s psychedelia of "The Sound of Silence," the reggae-influenced "Mother and Child Reunion," the Muscle Shoals funk of "Kodachrome," the stylized pop of "Still Crazy After All These Years," the cocktail jazz of "Late in the Evening," the African-influenced "Graceland," and now the electronic sounds created by Brian Eno on Simon's latest album, Surprise.
That calls for a very versatile musician.
Simon's willingness to explore new musical terrain with each album is both a hallmark of his career over the past 40 years and a tribute to his greatness. It would have been easy for Simon to release Graceland II, but to his credit, he never did. Simon is no one-trick pony.
Simon & Garfunkel made their mark in 1968 when their songs were used for the soundtrack of The Graduate. And who would have predicted then that the guy who wrote such earnest and "college-serious" songs of alienation as "Homeward Bound" and "I Am a Rock" would mature into the greatest American composer of the last half of the 20th century? Is there anyone else even close?
Simon got his start in the Brill Building, the famed songwriting factory, in the late '50s and was schooled in the craft of writing great songs. As he built his repertoire with Simon & Garfunkel, he both honored the lessons he'd learned at Brill and exceeded them. Even today, it would be difficult to find a better chorus or a greater last verse than "The Boxer." And there are few songs that capture the aftermath of the Summer of Love in finer detail than "America." And you'd be hard-pressed to find a greater gospel song than "Bridge Over Troubled Water." If you don't believe it, listen to Aretha Franklin's version. Or the one that Elvis did. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a better song about the quest for personal redemption than "Graceland."
What is most impressive about Simon's career is how long the prime of his songwriting skills lasted. The songs he wrote for Simon & Garfunkel were produced over a six-year period, and that's a pretty representative peak for a pop songwriter. John Lennon and Paul McCartney's creative peak lasted about six years. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote their greatest songs over a seven-year period. Bruce Springsteen's greatest work was produced over a five-year period between 1973 and 1978.
And yet, Simon continued to top himself over a 25-year period. Simon wrote some of the definitive songs of the '60s. He not only produced one of the best albums of the '70s with Still Crazy After All These Years, he also produced what is perhaps the best album of the '80s, Graceland.
Simon has always taken a cerebral approach to songwriting, using his initial inspiration and then carefully crafting it. At the age of 64, he continues to labor over his songs and is plagued with doubts about whether he still has anything relevant to say. "Will anybody get it?" he recently asked USA Today, discussing Surprise. "Am I just talking to myself? You have to put that aside because it's not very helpful."
Surprise is such a radical departure for Simon, it is one of those albums that sounds strange and dissonant at first, and then begins to grow on you. At its heart are the songwriting craft and spirit of adventure that have defined his entire career.
Rhymin' Simon is back. And after all these years, the fighter does still remain.
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