Paul Simon in the waiting room
It’ll be interesting to see how much Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms means to anyone below a certain age, by which I mean the time when the buffers marking the end of the line start to become dimly visible. Simon, now 81, has clearly been reflecting on his own mortality and this new 33-minute strand of seven songs, edited together without breaks, offers his provisional conclusions.
Simon has no privileged knowledge to impart. No one does. Of all the countless billions of people born since homo sapiens emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago, not one has had a credible answer to the question: what happens after we die? Faith-based answers must be respected, but are just that: based on faith, not fact. Otherwise all we can do, all of us, is wait and wonder.
So for someone of my generation it’s interesting to see certain artists we grew up alongside choosing to address the matter, feeling they’re on the brink of finding out for themselves. When David Bowie and Leonard Cohen gave us Black Star and You Want It Darker, they appeared to know that these would be their last words, shared with the public just before they stepped out of this life.
Seven Psalms is Simon’s meditation on what he calls “the great migration”, and of course he can’t avoid the spiritual dimension. The opening sound is that of Harry Partch’s cloud-chamber bowls, a microtone apart, setting up a mood of both meditation and uncertainty before Simon’s distinctive acoustic guitar begins the first song, “The Lord”. It’s an incantation: “The Lord is my engineer / The Lord is the earth I ride on… The Lord is a meal for the poorest / A welcome door to the stranger… The Covid virus is the Lord / The Lord is the ocean rising / The Lord is a terrible swift sword… The Lord is my personal joke / My reflection in the window…”
The song reappears, in briefer form, between the third and fourth and the sixth and seventh songs, as the expression of a man who has no more idea than you or me of what the Lord might be, or if there is one at all, but feels the need to explore the subject and his own vacillation between scepticism and the urge to believe in a higher power, particularly as time gets more pressing.
In the gentle “Love Is Like a Braid”, the shadows of a judgment to come are creeping across the sunlit lawns of childhood innocence: “I lived a life of pleasant sorrows / Until the real deal came / Broke me like a twig in a winter gale / Called me by my name.” Country-blues fingerpicking and the quacking of a bass harmonica carry “My Professional Opinion”, his sardonic take on a world of divided opinions and no common ground: “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.”
“Your Forgiveness” is a lovely song about wonder and doubt, its quasi-medieval tone enhanced by the use of the chalumeau, a precursor of the clarinet, and the theorbo, a 14-string lute used in Baroque music, plus viola and cello. “Trail of Volcanoes” refers briefly to the arc of his own career before coming to a bleak conclusion: “The pity is / The damage that’s done / Leaves so little time / For amends.”
“The Sacred Harp”, some of it sung in duet with his wife, Edie Brickell, is a fable about picking up a pair of hitch-hikers who seem to be on a different journey altogether. The closing “Wait” begins with a thought we might all share one day: “Wait / I’m not ready / I’m just packing my gear / Wait / My hand’s steady / My mind is still clear.”
I have no idea on how near Simon is to the “dreamless transition” in which he wants to believe. But here he shows, as he always has, that he can treat the weightiest of subjects with the lightest and deftest of touches.
* Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms is out now on Owl Records. Here is the official trailer. The photograph is an early publicity shot, taken by Murray Neitlich (thanks to Patrick Hineley for the attribution — see comments).