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Record Collection.003: Paul Simon’s Self-Titled Debut

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Saturday, 02 February 2008

I have a friend who is fond of quantifications.

"Top three songs you want playing at your funeral.” “Number one film to have in the event of catastrophic famine.” “Three albums you'd take with you to a desert island."

Naturally, I find these questions hard to answer. Albums I would grab on the brink of mortality? Desolation? Starvation? MORTALITY?!!? That's asking for some pretty hefty loves.

But I like that my friend asks these questions. I find myself thinking about the "desert island" question often but there's only one album I'd think of as the ship went down: Paul Simon's 1972 self-titled debut solo album. Deriving much of its musical design from various blues traditions, the album's laden with a plain wisdom and world-weariness that lends the blues its importance and cognate quality—a tradition by which Simon brings himself to some of his most comforting moments on record.

I love this whole album, but there are parts of it I love more than others. Like when Simon inflects the delta blues in “Paranoia Blues” with a bottleneck slide wailing between verses. Or the silver seam of a chorus that exhales behind Simon's leading voice and the guitar break that follows. Almost architectural in its musical evocations, the winding solo in “Peace Like a River” unravels its arpeggios like a swirling eddy, contrasting the meandering guitar against the fat thumps of the rhythm section like water hitting rocks. And all throughout the album the plaintive high notes are drifting.

There's a recording of Bessie Smith singing “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out” where she arcs her back to hit a high note and draws away from the mic. You hear the discrepancy in the volume as it dips from her distance. The intimacy of the recording reminds me of the physicality involved in songmaking with all its breathing, squirming, strumming and signaling. You get the same transparency in Paul Simon’s “Everything Put Together Falls Apart.” It's Simon on the guitar with his lip to the mic, near enough that you can hear the quivering vibrato of the low notes and the crest-and-trough of his own melodic fidgeting. The gesture is short and nothing extraordinary but when you catch it unaware it's like discovering a wonderfully human slip-up on the ever-spinning mechanical item.

There is no elegant variation with Simon; it is all plain-speak. They are stories of people wandering on lonesome roads, the common individual with common anxieties, empty townships reflecting the wanderlusting humanity of people stepping their way through mundane frustrations and disappointments. And Simon is different with each approach and struggle. Whether it's the jaunty cheekiness of “Paranoia Blues,” the sawing fiddle of “Hobo's Blues," or the loose reggae feel of the opening track, not everything is sorrowful. But susceptible as any narrative inevitably is, Simon's album is faulty of romanticized idyll and defeat—and that's what I like best about it. That's art. Because you will have passed, in one time or another, a person walking unsheltered in the rain. Give eloquence to the ordinary and we can imagine that the wanderer is the protagonist in “Papa Hobo,” thinking the last words, "I'm on the road/And the weatherman lied."

But is this enough? Will I tame the desert isle with this? Compulsively, my friend's inquiries are on the value of creative objects: what we find out about ourselves, how we achieve consolation in art, and the reasons behind why we do. I wouldn't go as far as to say Paul Simon's gentle singer/songwrit(h)ing contains an explanation for why I love the way I do, but it's a step toward dwelling in an enigmatic and personal sentiment.

So by the light of these implications, we delve into the murky significance of movies, music, memories and everything else, hoping that these questions (couched mostly in apocalyptic scenarios, of course) will validate why creative objects matter—because without them we would not exist (in either case of apocalypse or heartbreak) in quite the significant way that we do.

If you ever get the chance, listen to the album on vinyl. I know that'll be me in between smoke signals and coconut gathering: head pressed tight against the phonograph, attuned to the crackling companionship of Paul Simon on 33 rpm, trying to make it on this abandoned piece of land.

More on Paul Simon here: www.paulsimon.com

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