The release of Paul Simon’s new album today, In the Blue Light, is a bittersweet occurrence. On one hand, we’re lucky to receive a new work from one of finest songwriters of the last half-century, a talent who — unlike most artists from the ‘60s still touring or recording — has staunchly refused to settle into one particular sound or lyrical lane. Less happily, though, Simon — who will play his final show ever on Sept. 22 in Queens, New York — has indicated his songwriting days are over, explaining to NPR he’d much rather travel the world and ponder the mysteries of life than hunker down for another three-year album-making process.
Considering Simon’s 21st century album output is — like another Paul with an album out today — startlingly fresh, that’s sad news. But can you really demand more from a guy who’s given us more than 50 years of songs that speak to the depths of the cultural collective subconscious? (I mean, you could, but you’d be a jerk. Let the man enjoy his free time.)
With that in mind, it’s both fitting and strange that what may be Simon’s final album has no new material on it. In the Blue Light is a collection of re-recorded obscurities from his past, going as far back as a deep cut on 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (LP opener “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor”) up to a song from 2011’s So Beautiful or So What (LP closer “Questions for the Angels”).
What may go down as his final creative statement isn’t a statement at all — it’s essentially a project of do-overs. “This album consists of songs that I thought were almost right, or were odd enough as to be overlooked the first time around,” Simon explains in the liner notes. “Re-doing arrangements, harmonic structures, and lyrics that didn’t make their meaning clear, gave me time to clarify in my own head what I wanted to say, or realize what I was thinking and make it more easily understood.”
To be clear, this isn’t some contract-fulfilling collection of needlessly redone material. This is one of the rock era’s most fastidious artists giving himself a second shot at perfecting songs he thinks deserve a second look. All things considered, it’s a fairly unprecedented move — most artists who re-record their songs stick to the hits, and they mainly do it for purely commercial concerns. But Simon has always been one of rock’s low-key iconoclasts, a man you would hardly call a rebel but would never accuse of being a follower. And when you take in this album’s eclectic sonic scope, it’s clear his fealty is to no one but his own creative muse.
With assists from instrumental sextet yMusic, Bill Frisell, the National’s Bryce Dessner and Wynton Marsalis, In the Blue Light touches on New Orleans boogie woogie (“Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” from 2000’s You’re the One), lilting chamber pop (“Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War,” originally from 1983’s Hearts and Bones), and smoky lounge jazz (“How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” off 1980’s One-Trick Pony).
The musicianship is top notch, with the players knowing just when to step into the fore or retreat and let the lyrics and vocal performance breathe. Album standout “Can’t Run But” from 1990’s classic The Rhythm of the Saints is a prime example; while you’d be misguided to quibble with the original, you could easily make the case that the 1990 version’s frenetic polyrhythms distract from the words. That’s not an issue here; the arrangement (from Dessner, adapted from Marco Antônio Guimarães’ original) cedes center stage to Simon, with instrumental flourishes popping up to emphasize the words and disappearing when no longer needed. Nervous strings occur throughout, with the players nearly stepping on each other’s toes and creating a riveting, expectant tension. Even so, yMusic’s accompaniment never steals the spotlight — quite different from the Rhythm original, where the propulsive instrumentation made a bigger impression than the vocal delivery. Is it better than the original? Not necessarily, but it’s a welcome reimagining, a version that brings out previously unseen corners of the lyric.
Some of the new versions are obvious improvements on what came before, however. Take an ‘80s obscurity like “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” from the 1980 album One-Trick Pony (which accompanied the ill-received film of the same name starring Simon as a washed-up folk rocker, a fate his prodigious talent and work ethic spared him from). While the original featured a soft-rock backing band performance so slight you could scarcely recall its melody 30 seconds after the song wrapped, this new version utterly reinvents the song. With Sullivan Fortner’s jazzy, contemplative piano and Wynton Marsalis’ lonely, searching trumpet, the new arrangement transports you to a gradually emptying cocktail bar in the wee hours of the night; from the first few notes, you can practically smell the glass of bourbon in your hand (which doesn’t have any answers, no matter how hard you stare at it) and the rain-soaked streets outside. Not only is the music on this new version more substantial, but it emphasizes the lyrical content in a way the original version didn’t.
And that’s what makes In the Blue Light so worthwhile. No one was clamoring for Simon to revisit these tunes, but he’s taken a collection of 10 songs that most of his fans have long forgotten and made a convincing case that — after receiving “a new coat of paint,” as he says in the liner notes — they deserve hallowed space in his canon. If this proves to be Simon’s final studio album — and it may not; he’s simply indicated that the studio is low on his list of golden years priorities — it will mean that the Newark-born singer-songwriter’s solo career wrapped much like it began. After all, his solo debut was technically in 1965 with The Paul Simon Songbook, which featured a several different versions of songs that appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 debut Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. That’s a neat bookend, but more importantly, In the Blue Light is a testament to the erstwhile folkie’s creative path. He didn’t necessarily give fans what they thought they wanted from him (rewind to 1986 — no one was asking for a world music-inspired Paul Simon album; today, Graceland is lauded as a towering achievement), but what he does deliver provides unforeseen delights.
And by its very crate-digging nature, In the Blue Light’s victory is two-fold: It inspires the listener to get excited about new Paul Simon in 2018 while simultaneously sending you back to his substantial catalog, looking for other overlooked gems you missed the first time around.