Updated: Aug 31
Children! get ready
It’s time to come home
— Paul Simon, Wait
People, get ready. There’s some math a-comin’. Not the new math. The oldest of the old.
David Bowie released his 26th and final studio album, Blackstar, on Jan. 8, 2016, the day he turned 69. Two days later, the Thin White Duke was dead of liver cancer.
Leonard Cohen, 82, released his 14th and final studio album, You Want It Darker, on Oct. 21, 2016. Seventeen days later, ravaged by leukemia, the High Priest of Pathos died in his sleep after a fall at his home.
Paul Simon released his 15th and (possibly) final solo studio album, Seven Psalms, on May 19, 2023. Though on the cusp of 82 and nearer his inevitable destination, particularly after a nasty dance with COVID left him with a severe hearing loss, the former Little League baseball star from Queens has so far avoided slip slidin’ away like so many of his peers (Jeff Beck, Gordon Lightfoot, David Crosby, Rodriguez and Robbie Robertson this year alone).
I’ve been thinking about the
Noon and night they leave the block
And I imagine their destination
Meadow grass, jagged rock
If there were any doubt, Seven Psalms — from which I just cribbed that verse — proves Rhymin’ Simon is still crazy good, as those of us who discovered Simon and Garfunkel in the mid-sixties can happily attest, after all these years.
Given where the artists were in their lives when writing and recording the material, it’s not surprising that Blackstar, You Want It Darker (a declaration or a prescription, by the way, not a question) and Seven Psalms are all ruminations, piously crafted testaments, on life, death, time, mortality, eternity, faith, God, meaning and music. With some dark humour woven in.
From Bowie’s title track:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried,
“I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”
From Cohen’s song “Leaving the Table”:
I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game
I don’t know the people
In your picture frame.
From Simon’s psalm (or song of praise, if you like; biblical psalms were once chanted or sung) “Your Forgiveness”:
I, I have my reasons to doubt
A white light eases the pain
Two billion heartbeats and out
Or does it all begin again?
Simon’s album — to which I finally had a chance to give a careful listen through headphones while leisurely pedalling my stationary bike beside a wedge of B.C. rainforest (if there is a more satisfying form of meditation, it has yet to be discovered) — was summarized thus by New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles: “The album is constructed as a nearly unbroken 33-minute suite, nominally divided into seven songs that circle back to recurring refrains.”
Though Simon is best known as a folk or a pop artist, Seven Psalms exists outside either genre. As Pareles noted, Simon “latches onto melody phrases and lets them go, teasing at pop structure but soon dissolving them.”
The man behind such hummable tunes as The Sound of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds on the Souls of Her Feet, Graceland, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Kathy’s Song, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Mrs. Robinson, and on and on and on, is the greatest living master of melody phrases and pop structure. A walking, strumming Great American Songbook. He could develop these new ideas in his sleep if that were his goal.
But that’s not what he’s after here. Rather, he’s recreating the dream state itself. Strip away the instruments and you have a silent movie-style, black-and-white montage of passing images constructed of what Pareles called “places of lingering contemplation” and “sudden, startling changes.”
Montreal-born music critic Kitty Empire of The Observer said this in The Guardian:
Starring his voice and nimble guitar, with subtly dramatic instrumentation adding texture throughout, this is less a record than a dream state designed to wash over the listener in one sitting.
As in everything the conversational but exacting songwriter has ever done, the seeming randomness and informality is in fact carefully mapped out. Maybe he thinks too much for his own good. Some people say so.
This is Simon himself on the Seven Psalms trailer, explaining how the album came about after an earlier pronouncement that 2016’s Stranger to Stranger might be his final body of fresh material:
On Jan. 15, 2019, I had a dream that said: “You’re working on a piece called Seven Psalms.” The dream was so strong that I got up and I wrote it down. But I had no idea what that meant. Gradually, information would come. I would start to wake up two or three times a week between 3:30 and 5 in the morning and words would come. I’d write them down and start to put it together. …
I’m trying all the time to move things in this kind of ‘flow’ way that puts you in a dream. And I think if you’re willing to fall into a dream space, you’re willing to let your judgment down. This is a journey for me to complete. This whole piece is really an argument I’m having with myself about belief, or not.
So now let’s layer in Simon’s rhythmically flexible, arpeggiating, acoustic and high-strung electric guitars that offer the occasional hint, it seems to me, of long-forgotten guitarist Mason Williams’ 1968 hit “Classical Gas.” (Neither Pareles nor Empire nor Rolling Stone reviewer Michaelangelo Matos picks up on this — no pun intended — so I suppose I’m either Lester Flatt wrong or just really, really old. Drat, scrugged again.)
Mix in Simon’s Dobro and baritone guitars, the huffing of a bass harmonica, the microtonal bell tones of cloud-chamber bowls, gongs, a frame drum, a talking drum, a gran cassa bass drum, a gamelan, a gopichand, a glockenspiel, a Harry Partch chromelodeon … this is starting to sound like a Dr. Seussian acid flashback, but we’re not quite done.
Add harmonium, hadphoon, hadjira, Swiss tuned bells (an almglocken, if you want to get technical). Add the close, a cappella harmonies of British ensemble VOCES8. And above all, throw in the clear, beautiful voice of Simon’s wife and fellow songwriter, Edie Brickell, on what I think are probably my two favourite tracks: “The Sacred Harp” and “Wait.”
The latter song closes the album with the “Children, get ready” bit (a nod to Curtis Mayfield or Old School Jamaican reggae group the Versatiles, surely) I quoted off the top. The whole verse goes like this, only with an A-a-a-a-amen that stretches out over five musical syllables:
Life is a meteor
Let your eyes roam
Heaven is beautiful
It’s almost like home
Children! get ready
It’s time to come home
“The Sacred Harp,” ostensibly about picking up hapless mother-and-son hitchhikers but perhaps referencing mental illness or forms of dementia to which we have all seen dear friends and relatives succumb and toward which most of us harbour more fear than toward death itself, ends like this:
He doesn’t talk much anymore
Just to the voices in his head
The boy just gazed down at the floor
And nodded once or twice at what
The sacred harp
That David played to make his
songs of praise
We long to hear those strings
That set his heart ablaze
The ringing strings
The thought that God turns music
into bliss …
We left the pickup in the driveway
The moon appeared as amber
in the mist
No, I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day. But the mother and child reunion is only a motion away.
Simon’s voice isn’t as strong as it used to be (did I mention that he’s almost 82?), but his command of language is as sharp as ever. One of his favourite techniques is to make use of anaphora, in precisely the same way that political speechwriters and poets create sonic effects through repetition of words at the beginning of successive lines or phrases.
Thus, the three recurring psalms titled “The Lord” all offer meditations on the nature of the godhead — concrete and evanescent, benevolent and minacious — with simple declarative sentences like these:
The Lord is my engineer
The Lord is the earth I ride on
The Lord is the face in the atmosphere
The path I slip and slide on
You know. The nearer your destination, the more you’re ...
And the Lord is a virgin forest
The Lord is a forest ranger
The Lord is a meal for the poorest
A welcome door to the stranger
You want it darker?
The COVID virus is the Lord
The Lord is the ocean rising
The Lord is a terrible swift sword
A simple truth, surviving
Call him Yəhōwā. Call him Allah. Call him Shiva. Just don’t call him late for Armageddon. The Creator and Destroyer of worlds is an enigma Simon is struggling to resolve while he still can. While, as he sings here, “my hand’s steady, my mind is still clear.”
There is always more to Simon’s music, of course, than mere eschatology. With a nod to Delta blues genius Robert Johnson, “Trail of Volcanoes” is a rueful look at what has unfolded since a halcyon mid-1960s sojourn when Simon was touring England and about to become an international superstar. Our actions, and failures to act, have had consequences none of us can undo:
When I was young
I carried my guitar
Down the crossroads
And over the seas
Now those old roads
Are a trail of volcanoes
Exploding with refugees
It seems to me
We’re all walking down
The same road
To wherever it ends
The pity is
The damage that’s done
Leaves so little time
“My Professional Opinion” offers some wry, amused and bemused advice about the tumultuous direction political discourse, especially in the United States, has taken since the advent of social media:
Good morning Mr. Indignation
Looks like you haven’t slept all night
In my professional opinion
Go back to bed and turn off your light
“Love is Like a Braid” is about love (this is why they pay me the big bucks), contentment and domesticity, and how the bottom can suddenly fall out when some tragedy or serious disease befalls our happy homes:
Love is like a braid, some say
And I, I don’t disbelieve it
Cowrie shells, fine combs made
To ornament and weave it
I lived a life of pleasant sorrows
Until the real deal came
Broke me like a twig in a winter gale
Called me by my name
Simon, as any casual listener would know, has probed existential issues throughout his career, going back to a winter’s day in a deep and dark December. He’s a consecrated boy, a singer in a Sunday choir.
His song “Darling Lorraine,” about the deep grief a usually superficial schmendrik named Frank experiences as his wife is dying, is even more heart-rending in the version on the 2018 recasting of earlier works — the album In the Blue Light — than in its first incarnation on 2000’s Grammy-nominated You’re the One.
Your breathing is like an echo of our love
Maybe I’ll go down to the corner store
And buy us something sweet
Here’s an extra blanket, honey
To wrap around your feet
All the leaves were washed with April rain
And the moon in the meadow
Took darling Lorraine.
Indeed, Simon has been wrestling with questions about the nature and existence (or not) of God throughout his whole career. You might remember a little ditty called Bridge over Troubled Water. Can you imagine how many millions of times it has been played at funerals all over the world? If you need a friend, silver girl, he’s sailing right behind.
This is from “Questions for the Angels,” on his transcendent 2011 album So Beautiful or So What:
Folded in his backpack pocket
The questions that he’d copied from his heart
Who am I in this lonely world?
And where will I make my bed tonight?
When twilight turns to dark
Questions for the angels
Who believes in angels?
Fools and pilgrims all over the world
If you’re a fool or a pilgrim like I am (and just to be clear, I ain’t no pilgrim for love songs that whisper in my ears), give Seven Psalms a dream listen in the blue light of the Belvedere Motel sometime and see if you don’t wake up with your hair as white as the morning moon. It could be the deep, forbidden music you’ve been longing for. The vision that was planted in my brain still remains.
This is Simon at the end of that trailer: “I’m looking for the edge of what you can hear. I can just about hear it but I can’t quite. That’s the thing I want. How do you get there? … It’s way on the horizon and sometimes you find it to make something that has magic.”
Dip your hand in heaven’s waters
All of life’s abundance
In a drop of condensation