The Lord Is His Record Producer: Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms
On his new album, the king of singer / songwriters faces down eternity and wins
At this point, Paul Simon doesn’t owe us a damn thing.
He’s been making great records since the mid ‘60s (or the late ‘50s if you’re a fan of Simon & Garfunkel’s teen incarnation as rock ‘n’ rollers Tom & Jerry). And unlike most of the other people who started creating classic music during the LBJ era, Simon has never stopped pushing the envelope and progressing. Freakily, he’s also never stopped getting better, even if the masses started paying increasingly less attention post-Graceland.
Seven Psalms, Simon’s first release as an octogenarian, could have been an hour of him playing his cheeks with a pair of spoons and we’d still have nothing to gripe about in the context of everything he’s already given us. But as longtime admirers know, that’s not the way Simon rolls.
Once more, the man who has moved through scads of stylistic evolutions over the decades edges into fresh territory—not just fresh for himself, but for anybody. And in the process, he’s made one of his most moving works ever, which is no mean feat considering his back catalog.
The basic facts are these: Seven Psalms is a song cycle with seven pieces that flow into each other as part of one continuous, 33-minute track. His voice and acoustic guitar are at the core, but he augments them with other instruments. A handful of accomplices add effective touches here and there, including his wife, Edie Brickell; longtime percussionist Jamey Haddad; and the vocal ensemble Voces8.
Lyrically, the format’s closest friend is the Old Testament Book of Psalms. The whole thing plays out like Simon’s spiritual reckoning, inspired by the battle within him between faith and nonbelief, with hope and doubt bouncing back and forth between them.
Simon has pared his language down a bit, just as he’s jettisoned the full-band approach. Instead of the wildly imagistic lyrics we’ve become used to, he’s simplified his style somewhat. But that seems to have been part of an effort to access both heart and spirit as directly as possible. So, the songs end up being at least as poetic as before if not more, just in a different way. If anything, there’s an added degree of poignancy. When you’re swinging for the fences like Simon is here, tackling the heaviest topic there is, you want to eliminate anything that might impede your momentum—like the way bicycle racers shave their legs to cut down wind resistance.
Musically, Simon’s as adventurous and ambitious as ever, he’s just using fewer tools to realize his vision; maybe that means he’s gotten more efficient at bringing it into being. The individual songs stand on their own as discrete compositions, but themes are reiterated throughout, each segues directly into the next, and they all feel like individual parts of a whole. Given the mostly acoustic tonalities at work and the absence of a rhythm section (not that it’s missed at all), you could almost call Simon’s approach here a kind of folk prog, the sort of territory occasionally ventured into by the likes of The Punch Brothers or The Decemberists, but sounding completely unlike either and bearing an exponentially greater amount of gravitas. It definitely enters into artsong territory.
The main recurring theme is the one introduced in the first piece, “The Lord.” Simon details multiple manifestations of something bigger than humanity, for good or ill, ultimately including everything from “The Lord is my engineer, the Lord is my record producer” to “The COVID virus is the Lord, the Lord is the ocean rising.”
In “The Sacred Harp,” Simon seems to posit music as one of the divine spirit’s possible voices (“The ringing strings/The thought that God turns music into bliss.”) And in “My Professional Opinion” we get a bit of his archly humorous side, as he depicts the ways petty gripes between people dissipate in the face of the eternal (“Good morning, Mr. Indignation, looks like you haven’t slept all night.”)
Along the way, Simon’s delicate acoustic guitar lines and still surprisingly pure vocal tones trace eloquent melodic trails that owe little to conventional pop song structure but are still eminently easy on the ear. He creates subtle counterpoint with a broad arsenal of tuned and untuned percussion, keyboards, and additional stringed instruments, as well as the almost ghostly vocal presence of Voces8, and a small ensemble including flute, violin and cello.
VIDEO: Seven Psalms trailer
Appropriately, the closing section of Seven Psalms deals with the final accounting, where we’re facing down whatever lies beyond the life we know. It makes perfect aesthetic and emotional sense for the voice of Edie Brickell to enter here, both for the significance of her connection to Simon and the spirit of transcendence that her voice seems to represent.
Considering how gifted Simon already was in the early years of his career, he’s been beating the odds for a very long time by continually bettering himself as a songwriter and record maker (okay, there was The Capeman, but everybody stumbles sometimes).
He’s pulled that trick off once more with Seven Psalms, and if it seems unlikely to happen again, keep in mind that achieving the unlikely is what Paul Simon is all about.
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3 thoughts on “The Lord Is His Record Producer: Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms”
So happy to hear that Paul still has it. I love the way he pushes the limits of creativity. His sound is always different yet so fresh. It amazes me when he explains that he not only hears the music In his dreams but the WORDS too. Such genius. I see in the trailer that Wynton Marsalis is on this album too. Thank you Paul for letting us enjoy your music – in every decade.
Great review. I only beg to differ with your opinion on Capeman. A flop, but a great album and musical, interesting concept imo.
Paul always amazing, he’s spectacular, a balm for the heart!