Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Paul Simon [extended]

  • Bridge Over Troubled Water [Columbia, 1970] B
  • Paul Simon [Columbia, 1972] A+
  • There Goes Rhymin' Simon [Columbia, 1973] B+
  • Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin' [Columbia, 1974] C+
  • Still Crazy After All These Years [Columbia, 1975] B
  • Greatest Hits, Etc. [Columbia, 1977] A
  • One Trick Pony [Warner Bros., 1980] B-
  • The Concert in Central Park [Warner Bros., 1982] C+
  • Hearts and Bones [Warner Bros., 1983] B+
  • Graceland [Warner Bros., 1986] A
  • Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986 [Warner Bros., 1988] B
  • The Rhythm of the Saints [Warner Bros., 1990] *
  • The Concert in the Park--August 15th, 1991 [Warner Bros., 1991] Dud
  • Songs From 'The Capeman' [Warner Bros., 1997] Neither
  • You're the One [Warner Bros., 2000] Choice Cuts
  • The Paul Simon Songbook [Columbia/Legacy, 2004]
  • Surprise [Warner Bros., 2006] *
  • So Beautiful or So What [Hear Music, 2011] A
  • Live in New York City [Concord/Hear Music, 2012] **
  • Stranger to Stranger [Concord, 2016] A-
  • In the Blue Light [Legacy, 2018] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water [Columbia, 1970]
Melodic. B

Paul Simon [Columbia, 1972]
I've been saying nasty things about Simon since 1967, but this is the only thing in the universe to make me positively happy in the first two weeks of February 1972. I hope Art Garfunkel is gone for good--he always seemed so vestigial, but it's obvious now that two-part harmony crippled Simon's naturally agile singing and composing. And the words! This is a professional tour of Manhattan for youth culture grads, complete with Bella Abzug, hard rain, and people who steal your chow fong. The self-production is economical and lively, with the guitars of Jerry Hahn and Stefan Grossman and Airto Moreira's percussion especially inspired. William Carlos Williams after the repression: "Peace Like a River." A+

There Goes Rhymin' Simon [Columbia, 1973]
Quite consciously--why do you think the new single is so equivocal about the phony hues Kodachrome lays on reality?--Simon sacrifices the manic-depressive range of his solo debut in search of an equivalent for S&G's all-encompassing homiletic pleasantness. The vocals are softer, smoothed over with borrowed or double-tracked harmonies, and the pep shots from more specialized styles (by the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Onward Brass Band) less speedy. The lyrics celebrate domestic satisfactions and seem to find political ambiguities more curious than ominous. None of which is bad or dishonest--it suggests a new grace and flexibility for the mass-pop mode, and invests small subjects and emotions with an almost luminous wit and awareness. But I have my doubts about Kodachrome too. B+

Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin' [Columbia, 1974]
You get the Jessy Dixon Singers' rendition of "Jesus Is the Answer," you get some improvised "yes I would"s, you get several S&G songs sans G, and you get lots of inferior remakes. Not for nothing is he a studio obsessive. C+

Still Crazy After All These Years [Columbia, 1975]
I resented the patina of cheerfulness on There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973) because I thought it sold out the terse, evocative candor of Paul Simon (1972). Now I miss its intimations of universality. I hope in 1977 I'm not moved to praise unduly the small, self-involved ironies that define this record at its best ("50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "You're Kind") without alleviating its lugubriousness ("Night Game," "Silent Eyes"). P.S. As you probably know, Art Garfunkel is back for one number. As you may not have noticed, Simon takes this as a cue to revert to the sophomoricism of "Richard Cory" and "The Sound of Silence"--"a finger on the trigger of a gun" indeed. B

Greatest Hits, Etc. [Columbia, 1977]
Including only two cuts from the must-own Paul Simon plus the live version of a third, adding two quizzical new songs, and unerringly selecting the most durable tracks from Rhymin' Simon and Still Crazy--I'd replace the overly quizzical (or else arrogantly insular) "Have a Good Time" with "Was a Sunny Day" (pure bliss plus Roches) or "You're Kind" (the fifty-first way to leave your lover), but that's a matter of personal ideology, and the omission of S&G's actually-a-hit "My Little Town" more than makes up. In short, fourteen good-to-great pop tunes for our time. A

One Trick Pony [Warner Bros., 1980]
The soundtrack to a going-nowhere flick about an over-the-hill rocker that he scripted, starred in, and of course scored is also his first true album in five years, and while it's literate, tasteful, etc., it's also--self-evidently--the work of a man who thinks he's too big for music (at five-foot-two, gosh). So if individual songs don't stand out the way they have ever since "The Sound of Silence," maybe he doesn't work as hard at them anymore. Like so many aging folkies he's devolved into a vaguely jazzy pop, and except for the lead cut and the one with Ray Charles on it everything serves the excuse for a groove. B-

Simon & Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park [Warner Bros., 1982]
In the great Woodstock tradition, this gift from a flower (or two) to a generation (or two) is also a corporate boondoggle--a classy way for Warner Bros. artist Simon to rerecord, rerelease, and resell the catalogue CBS is sitting on. Paul has forgotten Art enough to relax as a singer, which means that much of the S&G material has improved since 1971. But live doubles are live doubles, nostalgia is nostalgia, wimps are wimps, and who needs any of 'em? C+

Hearts and Bones [Warner Bros., 1983]
In his deliberately slight way, this fellow could be a comer. Rarely have the quiddities of pushing forty with more brain than heart or bone (or muscle) been explored with such obsessive attention to detail--acute musical touches match involuted lyrics small surprise for small surprise. B+

Graceland [Warner Bros., 1986]
Opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its biculturalism is striking, engaging, unprecedented--sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so radically incongruous and plainly beautiful. For Simon, the r&b-derived mbaqanga he and his South African sidemen--guitarist Ray Phiri, fretless bassist Baghiti Kumalo, and drummer Isaac Mtshali, all players of conspicuous responsiveness and imagination--put through their Tin Pan Alley paces seems to represent a renewed sense of faith and connectedness after the finely wrought dead end of Hearts and Bones. The singing has lost none of its studied wimpiness, and he still writes like an English major, but this is the first album he's ever recorded rhythm tracks first, and it gives up a groove so buoyant you could float a loan to Zimbabwe on it. Despite the personalized cameo for Sun City scab Linda Ronstadt (a slap in the face to the ANC whether he admits it or not) and the avoidance of political lyrics elsewhere, he's found his "shot of redemption," escaping alienation without denying its continuing truth. It's the rare English major who can make such a claim. A

Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986 [Warner Bros., 1988]
As vinyl, a gyp: $12.98-list double LP (albeit single CD or cassette) with just three more songs than CBS's superb and now out-of-print one-disc 1977 best-of, nine of which it includes, though not in such fetching order. The best Warners stuff is all from Graceland and wants to go home, and though the music is fine if you like such stuff, this is the kind of consumer manipulation that merits a boycott. B

The Rhythm of the Saints [Warner Bros., 1990]
his life in the bush of a fully-formed middle-class music scene more sophisticated than he'll ever be ("The Obvious Child," "The Coast") *

The Concert in the Park--August 15th, 1991 [Warner Bros., 1991] Dud

Songs From 'The Capeman' [Warner Bros., 1997] Neither

You're the One [Warner Bros., 2000]
"Darling Lorraine"; "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" Choice Cuts

The Paul Simon Songbook [Columbia/Legacy, 2004]
There's Paul Simon, and then there's Simon & Garfunkel. You don't have to love either. But you have to admit that the constraints of angelic harmony undercut the quirks of Simon's songwriting. Unfortunately, so does the folkie voice-and-strum of this UK-only 1965 collector's item, cut for the fan base Simon developed in London before S&G broke. The duo recorded most of these songs in the '60s, and recorded them better. Significantly, the three they skipped are all protest material: the outspoken "A Church Is Burning," a testy early version of "A Simple Desultory Philippic," and the genuinely rare antiwar sermon "The Side of a Hill." But Simon also suppressed the album for another reason: his true solo debut, 1972's Paul Simon, is about 10 times better. [Blender: 2]

Surprise [Warner Bros., 2006]
64-year-old liberal singer-songwriter reveals unanticipated knack for soundscaping ("Beautiful," "Outrageous"). *

So Beautiful or So What [Hear Music, 2011]
A good bet to turn 70 before year's end, the patient craftsman surrounds a 96-second acoustic guitar moment with nine four-minute songs about eternity. The mood is melancholy. yet suffused with gratitude--for his wife's love first of all, but even more for God's gifts, with the Divinity Himself an actor in several lyrics and close by in most of the others. Fundamentally general and speculative language is always pinned down by a specific or two--a blizzard near Chicago, Jay-Z hawking Roc-a-Wear, a banker's pockets, a CAT scan and the Montauk Highway, gumbo in the pot and Dr. King shot, the form you have to fill out before you get into heaven. The music is the mild, irregular folk-rock he's explored for decades, graced with global colors that sound as natural as that guitar. I've had many disagreements with my homeboy Paulie, plus I'm an atheist. But here my main quarrel is the identity of the "fragment of song" whose title you can't quite recall as the Divinity Himself sets you "swimming in an ocean of love." Simon seems to think it's "Be-Bop-a-Lula." I vote for the competing "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," in part because I want God to keep creating a disturbance in my mind. A

Live in New York City [Concord/Hear Music, 2012]
Old perfessor's enjoyable survey course in his own legacy, only he should never let the world forget "Peace Like a River" ("The Boy in the Bubble," "That Was Your Mother") **

Stranger to Stranger [Concord, 2016]
Backwards street gospel, flamenco handclaps and heelstomps, and Harry Partch microtones move and color an obsessive craftsman's insomniac lullabies. But the unease of Simon's new songs runs deeper than the existential anxiety these technical strokes alleviate, and not just because they provoke musical anxiety to do so. Early in the opener, a Milwaukeean with "a fairly decent life" is murdered by his "fairly decent wife," and soon the rich are gobbling all the extra fries as the rest of us hoard canned goods; in the one after that, a bemused tale about a stage door clicking shut transmutes into a meditation on the rage of everyone who'll never get a wristband. Five years ago it was like Simon had been soaking up the Dixie Hummingbirds for so long he'd made his covenant with God. On this record the good news is that heaven has finally been found--located a mere "six trillion light years away." A-

In the Blue Light [Legacy, 2018]
To mark his retirement from songwriting and spice up his farewell tour, the 76-year-old generates a new album from old material--not great hits, just songs he feels he got wrong somehow. Oddly, while six of the 10 selections are singletons going back to 1973, the other four are from 2000's You're the One, where I remain unconverted to "Love" and "The Teacher" and am glad to have "Darling Lorraine" and "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" on an album I might play again. Never a knockout singer, Simon has arrived at a creaky boyishness that serves him well on arrangements that cant both jazz and chamber while barely hinting at his many shades of folk-rock, including what he's always been too smart to call "world." For me the prizes are "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" from 1973 and "René and Georgette Magritte After the War" from 1990, small masterpieces I'd never recognized as such. But his 21st-century prizes remain 2010's So Beautiful or So What and 2016's Stranger to Stranger. Hear those first. A-

See Also