Paul Simon at 50: Warm, In Your Coat
Half a Century nn, Paul Simon’s self-titled solo album reflects essential independence
Although his eponymous effort was, in fact, his second solo album overall (the appropriately named The Paul Simon Songbook was initially released in England only in 1963), Paul Simon, released in January 1972, marked a decided departure from his namesake duo and his first true venture out on his own.
Surprisingly — or not — the transition appeared relatively easy, and while some may have missed Garfunkel’s upper register vocals, the songs were well suited to Simon’s singing alone. That said, Simon’s career had taken a modest turn after the duo’s somewhat acrimonious break-up year or so earlier.
According to his comments at the time, Simon was burned out and ready for a change. He took a teaching job at NYU before venturing cross-country to San Francisco where he put together some demos and mapped out a varied collection of songs and styles encompassing a broad swath of pop, rock, reggae and world music.
While the mix mostly came across as effortlessly accessible, it was an also a decidedly ambitious effort, one that went well beyond the folkish noir that had defined Simon and Garfunkel’s work and decisively ventured into unexpected realms. So too, his recruitment of such notable jazz names as Stephane Grappelli (credited as the co-writer of “Hobo’s Blues”), Airto Moreira and Ron Carter reflected his willingness to add new elements to his musical mix, even while defying any expectations of his admirers.
The track that offered the most immediate evidence of his departure from form was also the album’s first, and most successful, single, “Mother and Child Reunion.”
Recorded in Jamaica, it reflected the sunny ambiance of that Caribbean nation and, in fact, became one of the first example’s of pop’s subsequent embrace of island music. (Eric Clapton’s response to reggae, his take on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” was still over a year away.) The song helped define Simon’s stance as a solo artist and, in turn, raised the bar for all that would follow. In a sense, it even cleared the path to Graceland by illustrating his willingness to meld his music with specific cross-cultural influences.
The album’s sophomore single, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” shared those reggae rhythms, but despite its upbeat approach, it’s still cloaked in ambiguity. It’s description of a pair of boys that have broken the law contradicts the effusive innocence with which it’s delivered. It fared well on the charts, although it never quite hit the highs of its predecessor.
Nevertheless, Simon’s seemingly detached perspective didn’t purvey the album overall. The first person narrative shared with “Duncan” echoes the singular style of “The Boxer,” “America” and “I Am a Rock,” songs that represent the forlorn, down-and-out attitude of someone who’s clearly lost and on the outs from society, humanity and even his own hopes and aspirations. A moving piece of music, it follows a trajectory Simon established early on.
Likewise, “Run That Body Down” and “Congratulations” imply other personal possibilities, specifically Simon’s impending divorce from his wife Peggy.
Ultimately, Paul Simon marks a transition of sorts, one that found Simon shedding his partnerships, both personal and professional, and moving forward to follow his own muse and mantra. It helped set the stage for a far cheerier follow-up in the form of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon nearly a year and half later, an album that found him flush with both confidence and competence.
That said, Paul Simon fared well on its own, topping the charts worldwide and making its way into the Top Five here at home. Reviews were mixed, but in retrospect, it still managed to leave an indelible impression as among the most revered records of all time.
It is, in fact, a testament to its creator’s artistic integrity and, equally importantly, his willingness to wander wherever inspiration might lead him.
VIDEO: Paul Simon “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”
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