I don’t know much, but I do know this. When the universe conspires to bring you new albums from two of rock’s most respected elder statesmen, and both of those gentlemen happen to be named Paul, you write about them together. It’s like a gift.
Here’s the thing about both Paul McCartney and Paul Simon: they don’t have to make any new music, ever. They’re both 76 years old, and could very easily ride out their retirement years on the insane amounts of money they have already made. Neither one has anything to prove. Both will be eulogized as revered songwriters and entertainers, whether or not they pump any new material out before they go. Their legacies are absolutely secure, and adding to those legacies runs the risk of tarnishing them. There are probably more reasons not to jump back into the game for both of these men than there are to take the leap.
And yet both have consistently written and recorded new material long past the point when I probably would have taken my shingle down. McCartney’s last album, the underrated New, came out five years ago, and Simon’s latest, the delightfully weird Stranger to Stranger, landed only two years ago. And here they both are again. Of the two, Simon seems more interested in taking stock – he’s just completed what he says is his last tour, and his new album is more retrospective. McCartney, meanwhile, is pushing forward, launching a massive jaunt around the world in support of Egypt Station, his 18th solo album.
So what compels both Pauls to keep on making new music? It has to be a creative urge. Writing new tunes and getting together with your mates to record them has to be in the blood for both of these men. McCartney, for example, has to know that everything he does (and has done for decades) will be compared with his beloved work in the Beatles, and will fall short. Egypt Station is not for the people who will make such comparisons. It’s for McCartney himself, and for anyone willing to come along with him.
Is it worth the ride? Well, mostly. Because he’s working just for himself, he’s willing to stick with simple, fun tunes for much of the running time, songs that sound like they were fun to play but aren’t going to stand the test of time particularly well. McCartney once again worked with Greg Kurstin, producer extraordinaire, and the record sounds really good. McCartney played most of the instruments himself, as he has throughout his career, but you wouldn’t know it – the record has a full, sweeping feel to it, even songs like shuffling first single “Come On to Me” that don’t quite deserve the love lavished on them.
Kurstin isn’t the guy to tell McCartney no, either, so most of the lyrics here feel like first drafts, or sketches. That’s pretty standard for McCartney, never the world’s best lyricist. Even so, “People Want Peace” feels particularly cloying, and the Ryan Tedder-produced “Fuh You” should never have seen the light of day. I think I’m fondest of the slower piano-driven ones, like opener “I Don’t Know” and the sweet “Hand in Hand,” even though they’re full of clichés. I have much less trouble imagining a 76-year-old man singing something like “Hand in Hand” than “Fuh You.”
But this is Paul McCartney, so every idea he had during the recording sessions is here, packed together in 57 minutes. The second half gets more adventurous, and I’m here for much of it – “Dominoes” is a great little pop song, “Back in Brazil” feels like something Joe Jackson might turn out, and “Do It Now” hearkens back to the classic McCartney ballads of the past. (His voice is still pretty strong, if noticeably weaker than in his heyday.) The biggest surprise is “Despite Repeated Warnings,” a “Band on the Run” for the Trump age. It’s a seven-minute suite about taking back the ship of state from a madman, and it’s heavy-handed and obvious, but musically fascinating. This one especially underscores how good of a melody maker he still is.
If McCartney had pared down a couple of his indulgences – have I mentioned how wretched “Fuh You” is? – Egypt Station would be a tight, solid rock record. But it wouldn’t feel like a Paul McCartney album. There’s just something about the messes he creates, about having to sit through something like “Caesar Rock” to get to the infinitely better “Despite Repeated Warnings,” that has characterized his whole solo career. This one fits right in, in all its inconsistent glory. He’s definitely making these things for himself now, but if you’re willing to let the shadow of his history fade away and just enjoy it, Egypt Station is a pretty fun time.
Paul Simon has taken things considerably more seriously on In the Blue Light, his 14th album, released to commemorate that final tour. Simon has always been one to look forward, jumping genres with nimble ease and offering new observations every few years, rather than just playing the hits. Blue Light is his first real look back, on which he rearranges and re-records some of his lesser-known and lesser-loved works. A prolific and creative writer like Simon has given us many songs (and in fact whole albums) that didn’t quite land, and this album feels like an admission and a second chance.
At least, it does until you hear it and marvel at how completely Simon has reconstructed these songs from the ground up. The album opens with a full-on jazz-band reading of “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor,” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and it’s a delight. The familiar piano intro is there, but the folksy shuffle has been replaced with a New Orleans-style groove, complete with trumpets and saxophones. The song’s structure is the same, but the feel is entirely different. The jazz band returns on “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns,” the One Trick Pony song that gives this collection its name, and the rebirth is even more complete here. (And can I mention how utterly clear and strong Simon’s voice remains? It’s a treasure.)
Rob Moose’s collective yMusic shows up here a few times, none more prominently than the great “Can Run But,” from The Rhythm of the Saints. On that album, the song was built with percussion, so of course Simon and yMusic recreate it with no percussion at all, capturing the original feel with violins, bass clarinets and flutes. It’s amazing, breathing new life into a song that was fantastic to begin with. yMusic also works their magic on “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” a song from Hearts and Bones that I’ve always found difficult to love. This orchestral recasting brings out the subtle beauty of the lyric, and it’s wonderful.
But if there’s an album of his that Simon wants you to revisit, judging from In the Blue Light, that album is You’re the One. Recorded and released in the wake of The Capeman, Simon’s disastrous Broadway show, it’s a funny, confident, intimate and often quite beautiful record, one I have quietly loved for nearly 20 years. It’s nice to see that Simon shares my opinion of it, as he devoted four of the ten tracks here to it. “Darling Lorraine” still makes me laugh out loud, and “The Teacher” is still pretty, here fully reinvented with Brazil’s Assad Brothers. “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” gets a full Dixieland reading with Wynton Marsalis leading the charge.
And here is “Love,” one of my very favorite Paul Simon songs, not so much reinvented as respected, with Bill Frisell doing his transcendent thing on guitar. If there’s a song here that I hope gets another shot at becoming iconic, it’s this one.
I adore the idea of Paul Simon looking back over his vast, storied catalog, plucking out gems, giving them a once-over and bringing them out to the showroom floor again. Very few of these are songs I would have expected, but now that I hear the care and love he’s shown in these recreations, I can see why he chose each one. Some are songs I had forgotten – most of One Trick Pony has drifted from my memory, and Hearts and Bones was never a favorite – and I will be listening with new ears. If that was Simon’s motivation for recording this, mission accomplished.
But like McCartney, I think Simon records for himself now, and In the Blue Light especially sounds like a project he needed to pursue as he wraps up his stellar career. I certainly hope we’ve not heard the last Paul Simon album, but if he does grace us with another one, it will be because he wants to, has to, is drawn to the creative well with an inexorable pull. And if he is, I’ll be first in line to hear it.
Next week, I’m not sure, but probably a few things from Lo-Fidelity Records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.