In The Blue Light
One of many reasons I’ve enjoyed almost all of Paul Simon’s solo catalogue is the quality-control. Just a dozen albums or so over nearly 50 years. He doesn’t rush. There’s so much in each album – pop songs that extend out into mini symphonies or fizz with their world-music buoyancy in the hypnotic rhythms, the memorable melodies.
So In The Blue Light arrives just two years after his last album – which is about as prolific as he’s been as a solo artist. It arrives too on the back of the announcement that he’s hanging up his touring jacket; is about to play his final show.
But In The Blue Light is different to other Paul Simon albums – it’s his first covers record. And here he covers himself – taking lesser known songs from across his canon, all album-tracks, no “hits”, and casts them in, well, new light. The title comes from One Trick Pony’s How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – which is re-cut here of course. But it also hints at the spectre under which to gaze at these new creations. For in fact In The Blue Light logically follows 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What and 2016’s Stranger To Stranger, feeling like a thematic album in its own right, not merely a case of Simon waving some of his leftover wares under our noses and reminding us that he’s almost always been at his best.
Well, maybe he’s doing that too – certainly he feels like the one we all forgot about or didn’t care enough about was 2000’s You’re The One and it might be hard to argue against that when listening to these new versions of Love, The Teacher, Darling Lorraine and Pigs, Sheep and Wolves. Here they get to dress up in Mardi Gras clothes and take an Allen Toussaint-styled stroll down a dimly-lit New Orleans back alley (Pigs, Sheep, Wolves) or they get a slight Leonard Cohen-esque candlelit reverie (The Teacher), the undulations of guitar are still there to coax and waft (Lorraine) and of course the focus is more on the lyrics this time around (Love); these songs – and the others that make up the album – reflect on art (rather than Art) and life and love and these are the sorts of rumination and meditations we’ve been hearing across his 21st Century work, but it’s (even) clearer here.
Maybe the revelations though are in the 1980s work, recast with a string section arranged by Bryce Dessner of The National.
Rene and Georgette Margritte with Their Dog After The Wall is the closest thing to a first-time “hit” here; memorable in its original arrangement (Hearts and Bones). But this time around the New York Chamber Sextet wraps its arms around the song, offering warmth and strength by way of a musical hug. They are also on board for Can’t Run But (from The Rhythm of The Saints) in place of the original African percussion.
Guests are important on this album – as Paul Simon welcomes old friends (Steve Gadd) and new collaborators (Dessner, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Frisell) to help create memorable new takes on songs that will reward the deep-dive trainspotter fans that always loved these compositions anyway, as well as possibly turning anyone previously cynical or at least unaware of these tracks. It would only be a stony heart that didn’t melt when hearing the gorgeous evocation of In The Wee Small Hours-era Sinatra on this rendition of How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns.
Paul Simon is a class act. Always has been. If this is his swansong then it ensures he always will be.
It’s a gracious way to hang his hat up with his touring coat too. And in that way he has it’s ever so slightly a gentle fuck-you to anyone that didn’t realise already how brilliant these bloody songs were.
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