Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms is a suite in seven-movements and possibly the last conversation we are going to have with him.
He has chronicled his childhood in a little town, where he grew up believing God keeps his eye on us all. He was the consecrated boy, his mother loved him. He was born at the right time.
His music is that of a privileged man, but of one with a conscience. He’s “never been lonely, never been lied to, never had to scuffle in fear, nothing denied to.” He recently rewrote his “American Tune” for Rhiannon Giddens, changing the lines to reflect a broader community, because we didn’t all come on the ship they call The Mayflower. “We come in the age's most uncertain hours and sing an American tune.” His consciousness, which always floats above his lyrics, seems bigger than the music itself.
While he is chronicling his own life, he has quite a bit to say about ours. Like the cross in the ballpark, his lyrics invoke the nostalgia of our national pastimes. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.” He is accustomed to a smooth ride, or maybe he's just a dog who's lost its bite.
These aren’t country songs extolling the virtues of America. These lyrics ask hard questions. In the opening moments of The Rhythm of the Saints we join Simon, against the backdrop of a Brazilian drumming collective. He is a bemused everyman flipping through his high-school yearbook. We know about all the crap he learned in high school, and that his lack of education didn't hurt him. He could read the writing on the subway walls and tenement halls and heard the whispered sounds of silence.
Simon invoked - with acoustic guitars and Art Garfunkel, the high spirits of freedom. Garfunkel went to Mexico to act in the film Catch 22, leaving Simon to say “Hey, I've got nothing to do today but smile... the only living boy in New York” This was the last album he produced with Garfunkel.
We were there with him when he was underage, in a funky bar when he stepped outside to smoke a ‘J’ and lost his virginity. “Just later on the very same night, when I crept to her tent with a flashlight and my long years of innocence ended.”
We lived through his divorces. “There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.” “Well this will eat up a year of my life and then there's all that weight to be lost.” He was slip sliding away, or in Seven Psalms, on “the path I slip and I slide on.”
He shares conversations with his son on a road trip, “Well, that was your mother and that was your father. Before you was born dude, when life was great. You are the burden of my generation. I sure do love you. But let's get that straight.” He tells of the guilt of the inevitable absence of musicians from their children’s lives, “And I know a father, who had a son. He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he'd done.”
He has the rare ability to create the ecstasy of listening to a simple song that lifts you as it crescendos into a repeating thought. “These are the days of miracles and wonders.” He is channeling words as if the spirits are requiring him to write them down in their language.
What makes his music compelling is that many of these truths resonate; he is a zeitgeist spirit framing our perception of the world, due to the ubiquity of his tunes but also because he is so often spot on in his observations.
We have lived Paul Simon’s life with him and so we must also and sadly finally acknowledge he is mortal and at 81 years old with a deaf left ear, Seven Psalms could be among his last words for us.
Simon has used Gospel music among many other genres to express himself and he occasionally dips his toe into Christian beliefs, but his views are largely that of a secular, skeptical Jew in the vein of Leonard Cohen. In fact Seven Psalms, like David Bowie’s Blackstar and Cohen’s You Want It Darker, is an end of life album. It could be said that Cohen’s mysticism ends with the lines “Hineni, hineni, I'm ready, my Lord... I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim. …You want it darker.”
Simon’s new album creates his own interpretation of Cohen's “Hallelujah.”
Seven Psalms begins with a thought that we all “keep in the back of [our] head,” - the great migration better known as death. These are lyrics that he was called to write from 3:30 to 5:00 AM a few mornings each week. Simon and Cohen have both discussed the process of listening to these voices, not dismissing them when it’s inconvenient, writing down what they say, being patient when they say nothing. It is, in essence, the art of art. In “Love Is Like A Braid,” he tells us “I lived a life of pleasant sorrows. Until the real deal came. Broke me like a twig in a winter gale. Call me by my name.” These four lines have been written in every language, millions of different ways for centuries, in poetry, in fiction, on the subway walls. They are the universal recognition of our mortality. They also say we are fragile, we are just a twig standing up to death.
The album is based on The Book of Psalms, the first book of the third section of the Hebrew Bible called Ketuvim (Writings). These are hymns of doxologies or praise to God. However, his Psalms are skeptical and more realistic, in the sense that if God exists then we have to acknowledge this being as both omnipotent but also evil, inflicting pain and sorrow. “The Lord is my engineer…The path I slip and I slide on. …The Lord is a virgin forest. …The Lord is a meal for the poorest of the poor. A welcome door to the stranger.”
The Lord is also the Covid virus, climate change and a terrible swift sword, “a simple truth surviving.” This liturgy says we don’t understand the space between good and evil; we “know what we know.” It is a modern psalm that allows for the agnostic and the atheist. “I have my reasons to doubt. The white light eases the pain. Two billion heartbeats and out. Or does it all begin again?” The average is actually 2.5 billion, but who's counting?
These deep thoughts are accompanied by Simon’s acoustic guitar, his wife, singer Edie Brickell, as well as the British vocal ensemble VOCES8. The instrumentation, which includes the microtonal bell tones of Harry Partch’s cloud-chamber bowls, gamelan, gongs, harmonium, flute, and glockenspiel, all adds to an out-of-time feeling as if Simon is in limbo waiting for a verdict.
Simon has tackled these existential questions before. “And I dreamed I was dying. I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly. And looking back down at me. Smiled reassuringly.” However, at 81 with the great migration much closer, he is not quite so sanguine. “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 for amends.”
He also once again addresses conflict as a topic of concern in many of his songs as he did on Wednesday Morning at 3 AM, where he overlays “Silent Night” with the grim nightly news. In "My Professional Opinion" he asks Mr. Indignation to go back to bed, to sleep it off. “I heard two cows in a conversation. One called the other one a name. In my professional opinion, all cows in the country must bear the blame.”
At the end he asks this supplication, “I want to believe in a dreamless transition. …I don't want to be near my dark intuition.”
“Amen” is his last word.