2000 / Music

Review: Simon’s New Album Stresses Sounds Of Silence

Singer-Songwriter’s New Album Is Low-Key Affair

Photo: "Look At That" Music Video

Photo: “Look At That” Music Video

Appearances are important. No matter what you are doing, the initial perception means a lot. Especially in the music business, image is crucial.

That being established, the cover photo for Paul Simon’s new album, “You’re The One,” is really boring. You see a rather expressionless Simon, dressed in a white shirt and ball cap, Sitting on a bench that is leaning against a wall of wooden planks. No exciting colors, knowing grins or realistic backdrops. He doesn’t seem to care that no one would believe that he was anywhere else but a photographer’s studio. And it certainly isn’t going to make anyone fork over their money to buy it.

Like the photo, Simon’s new album carries a sense of the understated. The album’s serene songs, which seem to move and weave with a strong sense of effortlessness, hover only a bit louder than silence. Although the songs are emotionally charged, they remain low-key, like shy wallflowers at a school dance.

But unlike the cover photo, there’s something more here. These songs are complex and more ornately beautiful than is readily apparent. Just because you can let the songs melt into the background doesn’t mean that you should.

Perhaps there’s a justifiable reason why Simon’s new songs are more mellow. The ’90s were a bit of a roller coaster career-wise for Simon. In the early part of the decade, he was able to deliver “Rhythm of the Saints,” a potent follow-up to his 1986 opus, “Graceland.” Later on, he suffered the humiliating public failure of his Broadway show “Capeman” (its accompanying album tanked as well.)

It’s also obvious that while Simon took more blatant excursions through “world music” on his two previous efforts, “You’re The One” is a more down-home album. The album has a more textured yet light and airy feel to it; the influences of African/Caribbean rhythms or instruments are present, although utilized for flavor.

Most of the album was recorded with the road band that Simon assembled during last year’s co-headlining tour with Bob Dylan (Simon even drafts Dylan’s utility man, Larry Campbell, for some pedal steel guitar on the album). Onstage, the 10-or-more-piece band was more of an orchestra. They remain aligned with Simon’s vocals and his songs. As such, the sound is rich, layered and yet tightly crafted. There are a number of other instruments and musical parts that separate each instrument, and yet everything falls into its designed spot.

The album’s first song, “That’s Where I Belong,” is full of complexities, though disguised as a naked lament. Opening with a spiraling flute and the quiet strumming of guitars, Simon’s tender vocals set the tone — swaying through the lyrics. Lyrically, it’s simultaneously apt in its sincerity and odd because of its explicitness. The song’s references to being a songwriter and “every end is a beginning” hint that this is Simon’s reaction to his changes in fortune. Regardless of whether or not it is, the song changes halfway through as an African rhythm comes to the foreground, and yet it never compromises the song’s emotional tone.

The next track, “Darling Lorraine,” has almost the same somber guitar tone as “That’s Where I Belong,” albeit with a tad more purpose behind it. When the song reaches the bridge, Simon launches into a put-down of the love of which he is tiring (“I’m sick to death of you, Lorraine”) as the music morphs into a dizzying sequence of guitar notes cascading over each other.

Track no. 6, “Look at That,” is the first song to break with what was becoming a bit of formula. Barring the thumping rhythm and jangly electric guitars of “Old,” the first four songs all sound kind of somber (I mean that in a good way). “Look at That” has strong percussion and shiny, harplike guitars.

“Senorita with a Necklace of Tears” has the appropriate Spanish flair and a pleasant bounce to it. A high-pitched guitar answers lines that wander from the realistic to the dreamlike (“We are born and born again/ Like the waves of the sea/ That’s the way it’s always been/ And that’s how I want it to be”).

Although songs at the heart of the record, like “Love” and especially “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” have words that never rise above blandness, the exquisite melodies are captivating if you tune out what he’s singing.

Winding banjo playing and a frenetic bassline make “Hurricane Eye” another refreshing number. Simon’s voice is flanked by propulsive drumming, with the melody dancing between the beats.

With faint feedback humming, “Quiet” Simon croons his way through the album’s conclusion. Any expectations of a last-minute funk workout fade when his voice trails off with the whispery music. The picturesque lyrics again hint at ambitions thwarted and frustrations suffered in silence.

Although he’s never been what you’d call a confrontational songwriter, this album sounds especially mild. The uptempo rhythms and funky basslines of “Rhythm of the Saints” and “Graceland” are left for choice moments during “You’re The One,” or placed in the background. These songs are more quietly melodic, maybe even melancholy-sounding.

Listeners, however, shouldn’t mistake the songs’ delicate beauty for background music. Not unlike one of his biggest hits, there is something to listen to in his sounds of silence.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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