Paul Simon is well aware that the end is near. The legendary songwriter recently announced that his September 22 show in Queens, New York will be his final concert ever. About two days before the release of his new album, In the Blue Light, Simon explained in an interview with NPR that his writing days are officially over. Instead, his interests have shifted to exploring the world and all of its beauties. Rather than compose new material for what could be his final album, Simon instead created a re-imagining of ten songs from his post-Simon and Garfunkel career.
If this were the final musical output of Simon’s illustrious catalog, it would be a stellar one at that. Even entering his upper 70s, Simon still has a knack for finding unique sounds, and writing clever lyrics. He’s always finding something new artistically, even through his own music. Simon’s tired of playing the hits over and over again, and In the Blue Light is the perfect representation of that. The collection of tracks are jazz-infused remakes of original cuts that have gone unnoticed amongst his very large discography.
The album is high on variance, containing tracks from as far back as 1973 (“One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor”), and as recent as 2011 (“Questions for Angels”). Simon works with legendary musicians Bill Frisell (guitarist) and Wynton Marsalis (trumpet) to re-capture that folk spirit from the past four-plus decades. The same magic that made Simon so beloved.
The music on In the Blue Light correlates with his vision and where he’s currently at as a solidified veteran. Just by simply adding a couple of interesting arrangements, Simon (who’s originally born in New Jersey) once again steps out of his comfort zone, and incorporates southern-style jazz into a majority of the songs, reminiscent of the easygoing New Orleans culture from the 1920s. The tone is laid back, but intimate, like on the beautifully orchestrated “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns” (formerly a part of One-Trick Pony from 1980). Unlike some of the watered down love songs present in today’s music, the trumpet and piano arrangements here paint a gorgeous picture of affection and appreciation for a significant other.
Simon’s attention to detail is still put on full display, as well as his originality to a certain extent. Sure, In the Blue Light contains already recorded ballads from the past, but the subtle additions enhance a different type of emotion. It’s incredible how one or two instruments can change the landscape of a song, especially on “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” where Marsalis’s trumpet brings out the comedic touch even more than the first version.
The violin appearance on “Can’t Run But” correlates masterfully with Simon’s hectic pacing, especially with its lyrics (“I can’t run but I can walk much faster than this, I can’t run but”). The song is a testament to Simon’s perception, and how using his instincts continue to make him one of the greatest musicians of all time. He’s not using these tracks as a victory run, but rather an exercise in finding perfection. When Simon says he’s sick of playing his hits, it’s not to sleight his fans. He just wants people to remember him as someone who’s always searching. The ten songs released this past week are a faint reminder that Simon is more than just a “cover artist” for himself. He’s a director of sound and nuance.
Even though he’s re-visitng cuts from the 1970s (like “Some Folks’ Lives’ Roll Easy”), Simon stays true to himself. The aforementioned track experiences some lyrical adjustments, with a bridge added in, as well as a saxophone solo. Things have changed since that time period, and Simon is well aware of that. He stresses the idea of knocking on God’s door, knowing that 40 years later, that message has a different meaning to it (especially at 77 years old).
Which makes the meaning of the final track, “Questions for Angels,” so riveting, and emotionally resonate. Un-ironically, he sounds like a man who still doesn’t have all of the answers. He doesn’t necessarily act entitled through his lyrics, but rather curious and understanding towards the human race (“If an empty train in a railroad station/Calls its final destination/Can you choose another track?”). Simon is currently trying to find that other track before his time is up on this Earth. He’s explorative, not only in his sound structure, but in the world surrounding him too.
There was an article on Vulture that begged the question, “Have Paul McCartney and Paul Simon Run Out of Steam?”. For me personally, this inquiry doesn’t make sense. McCartney just released a project full of desperate attempts to stay relevant amongst a growing millennial audience. Simon on the other hand stayed in his own creative lane, and made a simple re-hash of songs that may have slipped under the cracks for fans. He hasn’t run out of steam, he’s just winding down in the most elegant way possible. And if you know anything about Paul Simon, that’s the greatest place to be.