Paul Simon Covers Paul Simon on Retrospective Revisioning ‘In the Blue Light’
Paul Simon announced his retirement from performing earlier this year, after a musical career spanning five decades. The time is ripe for a retrospective, of sorts, and Simon’s latest release, “In the Blue Light,” is a unique one. The album revisits and reworks ten songs from his solo output over the years, enlisting illustrious jazz musicians like guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. While there are few things worse than artists tampering with classic material in tawdry attempts to stay relevant, you can rest assured that Simon does nothing of the sort. He doesn’t mess with any big hits or anything from “Graceland,” but instead excavates lesser known works from various stages. He has explained that he sought out overlooked numbers that he considered solid songs, but felt could be further improved. Any artist committed to craft will inevitably have second thoughts about compositional, lyrical, or production choices years down the line. In fact, it’s surprising that more musicians don’t undertake projects like this. What you have here is Paul Simon covering none other than Paul Simon, recasting early ideas in fresh contexts, and breathing new life into old songs.
The album begins by excavating 1973’s “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” a song very much of that era’s loungy rock ‘n’ roll, with boogie woogie piano all over. The revised version slows things down to a sluggish pace that seems to fit the mood, lining up with the whimsical reflectiveness of the titular lyric. The piano is more subdued-—– thank heavens, and while there are still fills and flashes here and there, they’re more classic jazz in their style, and executed with more restraint. Horns are added to the most climactic part, and it’s a magical touch, making the song pop in a way that the original didn’t. Like many of the songs revisited on this record, the original was already jazz-derived, with a swinging rhythm and angular chords, so the new rendition is able to play up this angle naturally. While the jazz stylings of the reworks are, of course, retro fare, most would agree it’s a type that has aged better than the ‘70s furnishings, to the effect that the new arrangements sound more timeless.
“Love,” from 2000’s “You’re the One” is only slightly altered. The already sparse percussion is reduced to a minimal pulse and only the most subtle accents. The jazzy guitar arrangement stays fairly faithful, but the new version jettisons a particularly memorable riff at the end. It’s not exactly clear what Simon was going for with these changes, perhaps just a decluttering. “Can’t Run But,” from 1990’s “The Rhythm of the Saints,” by contrast, is completely overhauled. It’s an adventurous reimagining of an already adventurous song, and one of the record’s most exciting moments. Simon has long been a fan of world music, traveling to Latin America and Africa, and returning to record albums full of exotic drums and tube instruments. The original track was in this vein, centered around frenetic percussion. The new take ditches this, and rearranges the music for a neoclassical sextet. It gives an entirely different feel, with the fanciful orchestral touches adding a lot of charm. With no drums any longer, all percussion is implicit, which seems to work well with the lyric, ““I can’t run but I can walk much faster than this.”
“How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns,” originally a country-tinged number is given the jazz treatment, with twinkling keys and Wynton Marsalis blowing away, resulting in a more meandering, free-flowing piece. It sound cinematic in the style of ‘70s romances set in New York City. The arrangement befits the mood of the song, and adds plenty new spark. “Pigs, Sheep, and Wolves,” another syncopated, percussion-heavy track is again stripped of its rhythmic equipment, and reimagined as jazz, but this time of the traditional New Orleans style. Horns cavort loosely, screech, howl, and hiccup, and the cartoonishness of it all works perfectly with the playful nature of the lyrics. “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” is a song written in response to a photograph of the same name, a 1967 portrait of Surrealist artists the Magrittes. While the 1983 version bore some marks of the time, like huge snares, and howled backing vocals, the revision uses just strings and some guitar. The spacious arrangement, full of swells and trills, makes the song feel like something dreamt up, fitting with its surrealist inspiration.
“The Teacher,” another originally percussion-heavy number, is reimagined with Spanish guitar stylings that create a decadent soundscape with their layered, intricate figures. It’s one of the most dramatic departures on the album, and also one of the most thrilling. “Darling Lorraine,” at once a dancey, upbeat number, is given a more relaxed tempo and a richer harmonic template that suits the song’s reflective subject matter. “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” is another radical revisioning, turning an initially twangy, trudging track into another open arrangement in which the piano takes the spotlight. The dense, virtuosic playing here is gorgeously expressive, and makes for one of the album’s most sentimental moments. Closer “Questions for the Angels” stays relatively faithful to the ambient intricacy of the original, but revitalizes it with subtle changes like a brief section with droning horns, and little flourishes throughout.
“In the Blue Light” will be a real treat to longterm fans, as it takes you down memory lane, and allows you to rediscover overlooked works from Simon’s various phases. It’s fascinating to see how the same artist who wrote these songs years earlier has come to revision them, as it takes you into the artist’s mind, giving you a glimpse at the inner workings of his creative inclinations. For those less familiar with Simon’s output, the new album is an effective survey, as the deep cuts revisited paint a fuller picture than a Greatest Hits collection could. Moreover, the new songs are thoroughly enjoyable for their level of musicianship. Simon has recruited musicians with the skill and vision to spin old songs into entirely new creations, while still retaining the spirit of the original works. Overall, the record is a unique and compelling celebration of an extraordinary musical career.
“In the Blue Light” is available Sept. 7 on Apple Music.