Older and Wiser
Paul Simon Shows Us How to Grow Older With Grace

It’s taken me a long time to be okay with getting older.

I will turn 37 in a few months. There’s nothing particularly momentous about the thirty-seventh year, but I’ve been feeling a lot more adult lately, a lot more stable. Oh, don’t worry, I’m still juvenile enough to realize that I’ll be able to make a Clerks joke once my birthday hits (“Thirty-seven?!?”), but I’m realizing, probably for the first time, that I wouldn’t go back. I had more energy as a teenager and a twenty-something, but no direction for it, and nothing to say with it. I think that comes with time and experience.

Like most things in my life, I can relate this to music. There’s a lot of emphasis in the music press on youthful vigor, on the kinetic electricity that only comes with not quite knowing what you’re doing. Every few months another group of garage-trained, sloppy, super-energetic youngsters appears from nowhere, and seems to effortlessly build buzz. (Think Girls, Los Campesinos, Times New Viking, etc.) And for the most part, these records leave me cold.

They’re all energy, no direction. These bands most often write songs as if everything’s new – the chords they’re spinning are the same chords in the same order that every neophyte comes up with early on, and the sense of discovery isn’t enough for me to forget that I’ve heard them all before. I’ve said that debut albums are all about potential, not the actual songs for me, and what I mean is, while I’m listening to most debuts, I’m imagining what these songwriters will be able to do once they have some insight to impart, some real skill behind their words and melodies.

Ah, but with age comes wisdom and maturity and the ability to write songs with more than four chords. I’m generalizing a little, of course – youngsters like Robin Pecknold, for example, write compelling and original tunes, while relics like Elton John haven’t penned a worthy number in 30 years. I get that. But this week I wanted to talk about the old guard, and the musical lessons that can only be learned by taking a long journey one step at a time.

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It’s always an event for me when one of my Favorites Over Fifty makes a new record. Of course, it’s always good when the artist in question has something new to say, which isn’t always the case. So let’s skip right through Ray Davies first, on the way to more interesting stuff. Davies, now 66, is an incredible songwriter – he was the mastermind behind the Kinks – but of late, he’s been cashing in a bit much.

The new See My Friends is Davies’ second collection of new takes on old Kinks songs in a row, following last year’s Kinks Choral Collection. This time, Davies invites a number of famous friends to give their interpretations of his tunes. The lineup is pretty diverse, from Bruce Springsteen to Metallica to Black Francis to Billy Corgan. And as you’d expect, some of them work and some don’t.

Among the successes: Mumford and Sons take on “Days” and “This Time Tomorrow,” and knock both out of the park. Spoon joins Davies on the title track, and Paloma Faith sings the heck out of “Lola.” And it’s very hard to screw up “Waterloo Sunset,” and Davies and Jackson Browne definitely don’t. But then there are the failures. Metallica plays “You Really Got Me” like it belongs on the Black Album. Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol is the last person you want to help sing “Tired of Waiting” – he actually sounds tired, instead of impatient. And Billy Corgan… well. He’s Billy Corgan, and he Billy Corgans all over “All Day and All of the Night.”

See My Friends is a bit of a mess, really, despite the best intentions of Davies’ co-conspirators. These are great songs, and some of them are hard done by here. But there’s no mistaking that cash grab smell that’s all over this thing. I’m not sure what happened – Davies revived his solo career in 2006 with two solid albums, Other People’s Lives and Working Man’s Café, but since then, it’s been one retread after another. Shame, really.

But give Davies credit for getting material out regularly. For the most part, when you hear about the older musicians, it’s in the context of comebacks, of returns from the inky black nothing that is private, non-musical life. I’m not sure why it takes some of these guys so long to put out new stuff, except for the fact that they don’t have to.

Case in point: between 1968 and 1978, Robbie Robertson made 11 albums with The Band, including two with Bob Dylan. But between 1987 and 1998, he made only four solo records. And then he stopped. Now, Robertson could easily live off of royalties from “The Weight” for the rest of his life, so I understand not cranking out the new product. There’s no financial reason to do so. But Robertson is a good songwriter, and speaking selfishly as a fan, his is a voice I wish I could hear more frequently.

But that makes the comebacks even sweeter. Robertson’s swell new album is called How to Become Clairvoyant, and it’s his first in 13 years. Robertson is 67, but his rasp is in fine form, and his songwriting chops are in full bloom. Like Davies, Robertson enlisted a diverse group of musicians to help him on this record, from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood to Tom Morello and Trent Reznor. Unlike Davies, he found a way to seamlessly blend these collaborations into a cohesive whole.

There aren’t really any standouts, and Robertson sticks to the dark, bluesy sound he does well. But the album as a unit holds together – even the two instrumentals add to the mood. The title track is a typically dark and portentous piece of mysticism: “King poet of the holy fool, apostle of self-destruction, I tried it your way but I couldn’t sleep, there was too much construction…” Throughout, Pino Palladino and Ian Thomas provide rock-solid rhythms, and Robertson’s thick arrangements give even the slightest ditties here depth.

In short, it’s a good record, and worth the 13-year wait. Similarly worthwhile is Bob Geldof’s new album, blessed with the witty title How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell. Even if I had been unaware of the former Boomtown Rats leader’s history, I would probably have picked this up based on the title alone. But I am aware of it: Geldof is now 59, and this is his first new album in 10 years. And as expected, it contains positively no popular songs that will sell.

Rather, this is an album full of moody, fascinating tunes. Some, like the opener “How I Roll,” are slow and expansive, while some, like follow-up “Blow Fish,” cause much more of a racket than you’d expect. The crashers are fun, as always – “Systematic 6-Pack” is a blast – but my favorites are the spacier ones, especially the lovely “Blow,” sequenced near the end. Geldof reaches for falsetto notes while a gorgeous clean guitar plays spectral tones beneath him: “Flow, bitter seas, thrown down on buckled knees, colder than the oldest sin, love will find a way to you again…” This leads into the George Harrison-esque closer, “Here’s to You,” a perfect benediction.

The Smithereens have spent a similar amount of time out of the spotlight. The New Jersey band led by Pat DiNizio, now 55, has spent time covering the Beatles and the Who on record, while DiNizio plays living room concerts across the country. But their last album of original material was God Save the Smithereens, in 1999. I don’t think anyone expected another collection of their trademark power pop to appear, which makes 2011 all the sweeter.

Of course, the title and cover design is meant to bring their biggest success, 1989’s 11, to mind. And granted, the band isn’t as young or energetic as they’ve been in the past. But 2011 is a fine, fine collection of tunes. Every song has that jangly guitar tone, those delightful harmonies, and that bouncy, melodic sound the Smithereens have brought to everything they’ve done. Here and there, you can tell that time has taken its toll, but 2011 is a stronger and better record than anyone could have expected at this point.

Favorites? OK. Opener “Sorry” sets the tone, the Bob Mould-ish chords supporting DiNizio’s thick voice as he sweetly sings, “I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m not.” The melodic rave-ups keep coming, peaking with “As Long As You Are Near Me” and “Bring Back the One I Love,” but I’m fond of the slower epic “Goodnight Goodbye,” with its tympanis and harmonies. Right down to the closing song, the early-Beatles-esque “What Went Wrong,” 2011 delivers. It’s proof that the old dogs can still write good songs, and rock out while playing them.

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So I told you all those stories to tell you this one.

If there’s anyone who personifies my idea of artists growing deeper and better as they age, it’s Paul Simon. He began his professional songwriting career at 16, and with Art Garfunkel, captured the spirit of the ‘60s with poetic, political folk music that made its sharp points with sweet verse. There was a youthful simplicity to these tunes, the clear-eyed certainty that only comes with lack of worldly experience. But as he’s grown older, his musical statements have grown murkier and darker, and better. There isn’t a Paul Simon album I don’t like, but it’s hard to argue that Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints aren’t masterpieces, and that You’re the One isn’t a late-career triumph. Simon’s world-view is complex and disturbing and oddly hopeful, and always fascinating.

Paul Simon is 69 years old now, and it would be easy for him to just stop, to just cash the checks for playing “Cecilia” and “You Can Call Me Al” over and over. But Simon is a songwriter. He could no more stop exploring his thoughts in song than he could stop breathing. And in So Beautiful or So What, his extraordinary 11th solo record, he’s made one of the best albums of his long and wondrous career.

And he did it by embracing his age. Unlike 2006’s Surprise, which found Simon stretching out with Brian Eno and incorporating synths and loops and soundscapes, So Beautiful is a “classic” Simon record. It’s based around his guitar—and no one on the planet plays guitar quite like Paul Simon—and his love of percussion. And lyrically, it is a meditation on death and the afterlife, on God and what lies beyond. It’s short, at 38 minutes, but every element of it adds to the theme, as if the album is a single piece, meant to be heard as one.

It opens with “Waiting for Christmas Day,” which makes use of a sermon by Rev. J.M. Gates. Christmas Day, in this case, is a metaphor for the end, for death, for judgment. Simon’s thoughts are varied – he pictures a nephew in Iraq eating turkey dinner, and wishes he could tell his parents that “the things we never had never mattered, we were always okay.” In between verses, Gates delivers his message: “When Christmas come, nobody knows where you’ll be.”

Simon begins “The Afterlife” already dead, and this is where his whimsical, dark humor makes its first appearance. His vision of the afterlife is bureaucratic: “You got to fill out the form first, and then you wait in the line.” But it’s worth it, as he sings in the final verse: “And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love, and the current is strong, but all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song…”

You know you’re listening to Paul Simon within seconds of “Dazzling Blue” shaking itself to life. His guitar playing is that distinctive. And here begins the second of his themes, the power of love to draw people together: “Maybe love’s an accident, or destiny is true, but you and I were born beneath a star of dazzling blue.” Nowhere on the album does that theme surface more than on “Love and Hard Times.” The soft piano piece begins with God and Jesus visiting Earth, and then leaving it behind because “there are galaxies yet to be born, creation is never done.” Adrift on his own, unable to find love on high, Simon finds it down here, and the resulting verses are so beautiful I cried the first time I heard them. When he ties it together at the end (“Thank God, I found you in time”), it is the most gorgeous musical moment of the year thus far.

So Beautiful is an album that asks big questions about heaven and destiny and how love finds us ruined and broken and puts us back together. But it contains not one ounce of pretention, and it never once feels as weighty as it is. Check out “Rewrite,” the tale of a screenwriter trying to revise his life: “I’ll eliminate the pages where the father has a breakdown and he has to leave the family, but he really meant no harm, I’m gonna substitute a car chase and a race across the rooftops, when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms…” “Love is Eternal Sacred Light” starts at the big bang and tries to explain why God had to leave his creation, but it’s jaunty and light and danceable.

The title track, then, serves as the ultimate summation of Simon’s themes. With God absent, the afterlife a whispered promise, and the world a mess, it’s up to you to make what you can of your life. “I’m just a raindrop in a bucket, a coin dropped in a slot,” Simon sings. “I am an empty house on Weed Street across the road from a vacant lot, you know life is what you make of it, so beautiful or so what…” The song is among the most energetic on the record, its joy palpable, its caution thrown to the wind, even as the lyrics touch on the death of Martin Luther King. It’s simply a glorious piece of work.

Astoundingly, at 69 years old, Paul Simon has made one of the best albums in his catalog. Or rather, because he is 69 years old. So Beautiful or So What is the kind of record that only comes with age, experience, and depth of insight. It’s a dazzling work, one I wouldn’t trade for a dozen scrappy indie-rock fly-by-nights. It is a record with purpose and power, and yet one that is utterly enjoyable from start to finish. It’s one of those albums that makes you glad its author lived long enough to create it.

And it makes me feel better about getting old, which is nice.

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That’s it for this week, but before I bring this to a close, I want to direct your attention once again to www.madeinaurora.com, the site for Made in Aurora, the local artists compilation album I contributed to. It comes out Friday, Record Store Day. You can watch a sweet video, read essays from the musicians, and buy the vinyl/CD combo online. I played piano on one track and wrote the liner notes, but I’m the least of these contributors. You want this record for Jeremy Keen and Kevin Trudo and Dave Nelson and Greg Boerner and Noah Gabriel and Hoss and everyone else involved. This is the best music you’ve never heard.

Next week, pretty, pretty noise with Elbow, the Boxer Rebellion and Derri Daugherty. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.