Tag Archives: Paul Simon (album)

Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

Image

Advertisements

Everything Put Together Falls Apart – Paul Simon

As I have alluded to here before, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon since I was very young. Six or seven years old probably. My parents owned Greatest Hits, Etc. on cassette in the eighties, and it got played on long car journeys to relatives’ houses, probably more than any other tape we had. It sunk in, got inside me. What I loved most were the wonderful jazzy chord changes of songs like I Do It For Your Love and Still Crazy After All These Years (from Simon’s combover-and-moustache years), and the unknowably adult emotions that accompanied them. This was music I couldn’t fully comprehend and had to get the measure of slowly.

Nowadays, despite my love of the jazz harmony that underpinned Simon’s work between Still Crazy and Hearts and Bones, my favourite of his solo records is the first, Paul Simon, from early 1972. Its most well-known songs (Mother and Child Reunion, Duncan, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard) are somewhat unrepresentative of the album’s mood as a whole. Take them away from the record and the remaining eight songs share a distinct character and feel – intimate, close-miked and alternating between metropolitan ennui and political anger, with occasional leavening moments of whimsy (‘Detroit, Detroit, got a hell of a hockey team’).

To be somewhat reductive for a moment, Paul Simon is Simon’s lo-fi album. The last Simon & Garfunkel album – the chart-conquering, record-breaking Bridge Over Troubled Water – was, Simon has suggested, difficult to make. As studio time mounted up (over 800 hours of it), disagreements surfaced (over the number of verses that Bridge Over Troubled Water should have – a debate Garfunkel, with his tendency towards the grandiose, won; over the inclusion of a song of Simon’s about Cuba and Nixon; over Garfunkel’s absenteeism while pursuing an acting career), and the pair did not make another record.

So while Simon had something to prove with his solo debut (to show that he was much more than just 50% of Simon & Garfunkel), he went about it in a way that was almost willfully low-key. If you’re going to make an album full of revealing, painful songs, possibly the best way is to do it matter-of-factly, without turning it into a big production. Duncan aside, Paul Simon is a small-scale, intimate experience, dry compared to the reverb-drenched Bridge, usually simple in arrangement and with mistakes and flubs left in.

The key moment comes in Everything Put Together Fall Apart, a short song that nevertheless modulates (sometimes semitonally) every couple of bars: a minute and twenty seconds in, Simon scratches his beard on microphone while singing the line ‘There’s nothing to it’. Such a thing happening on a Simon & Garfunkel record is unthinkable. Garfunkel wouldn’t have worn it, and in those days Simon wouldn’t have either. But after the protracted Bridge sessions, Simon was ready to make records differently. It’s a wonderfully human, magical moment; to break character, so to speak, in such a naked song, to look the audience straight in the eye and acknowledge the artifice of record-making, revealed a maturity that hadn’t been present on any S&G record, where everything (except possibly Cecilia) was done in dreadful earnest. It’s why listening to Paul Simon is never a heavy experience. It’s why it’s the most satisfying of any album that bears his name.

paul simon1 Paul simon2

Paul Simon