Bridge Over Troubled Water" is such a deathless composition that Paul Simon will probably be remembered more for his densely hit-packed half-decade alongside Art Garfunkel in the sainted '60s than for a solo career about to enter its 40th year. Tellingly, Simon & Garfunkel leads both Simon's Wikipedia entry and his career overview in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.
But a better case for Simon comes from a cherry-picked selection of solo material, at the core of which is a trio of linked testaments, two that bracket his career — the 1972 debut Paul Simon and this year's subtle, somewhat overlooked So Beautiful or So What — and the blockbuster in the middle, 1986's Graceland, which will rival "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as Simon's headliner.
This unintentional trilogy comprises not only the three best albums in a long, rich, somewhat erratic career but also forms something of a conceptual journey — from local to global to eternal.
With the eponymous debut, Simon signaled immediately that his solo career was going to take a different shape than the comparatively stiff, word-first folk of his '60s work. Garfunkel's choir-boy purity dispatched, Simon embraces rhythm and movement, with the reggae lilt of the timeless opener "Mother and Child Reunion" matched by the side-two-starting calypso snap of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard."
Geographically, Jamaican excursion aside, it's an East Coast record, with autobiographical New York City as epicenter. Simon names names — including his and his soon-to-be-ex wife's — dispenses drug advice, bids adieu to an outer borough neighborhood girl ("Rosie, the Queen of Corona"), and suffers Chinatown misadventures. "I got the paranoia blues from knocking around New York City," he confesses, climaxing his tour of post-hippie city life.
The musical exploration of Paul Simon set the stage for Graceland, which is not about touches and echoes but relatively full immersion.
Folk-rock, by nature, is lyric-focused, but Graceland is music first — literally, in that Simon apparently recorded rhythm tracks before appending lyrics. The album is about Ray Phiri's guitar, Baghiti Kumalo's bass, and Isaac Mtshali's drums before it's about anything.
Simon's genteel but buoyant embrace of South African pop was, much like inheritors Vampire Weekend a couple of decades later, easily mocked or dismissed by people who don't actually listen to African music. But Graceland served as a crucial gateway drug for many curious listeners — this one included — opening the door for the epochal South African comp The Indestructible Beat of Soweto and then an entire country, then continent. Graceland is also, all by itself, beautiful.
A few mild lyrical acknowledgements aside, the non-musical content here is rarely African. Simon remains himself while letting the musicians he employed and the musical culture he embraced remain relatively whole. Most of Graceland doesn't draw from South African pop; it essentially is South African pop, albeit a little less guttural, a little less tightly coiled, if possible, maybe even a little prettier.
Graceland's global — deceptively, almost uncomfortably "universal" — sweep is part musical, the union of American and African opening up at the end to include sympatico accordion-driven sounds both zydeco ("That Was Your Mother") and latin (the Los Lobos-driven "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints"), but it's also conceptual.
The opening "The Boy in the Bubble" is a bundle of globe-trotting, visionary imagery that hasn't aged much in the quarter-century since its initial release: terrorist attacks, turnaround jump shots, medical advances, "staccato signals of constant information/a loose affiliation of millionaires/and billionaires." From there, Simon leaps from his Manhattan-Soweto foundation for a pilgrimage to Memphis, a beer-bellied American finding salvation in a Third World marketplace, a baby born in Tucson, a rubber-necking remembrance in Lafayette.
Simon's So Beautiful or So What is a culmination that absorbs both Paul Simon and Graceland and then pushes forward. The album's musicality is informed by Graceland and Simon's subsequent international forays but is shaded rather than immersed, with a postmodern bent that incorporates sampled loops and percussive soundscape-production elements.
Conceptually, it feels personal in the manner of Paul Simon but shot through with reckonings with mortality. Full of more humor and detail than are typical of these kinds of records, Simon looks back with both gratitude (the final-verse message to his departed parents on "Getting Ready for Christmas Day") and regret ("Rewrite") and is thankful for a good marriage on a love song ("Dazzling Blue") that memorializes a summer drive to Long Island.
But the core of a record whose title ends up being a choice presented as a challenge is Simon's consideration of the eternal. This means speaking in the Lord's voice, condensing creation into an even tidier package than Terence Malick did in The Tree of Life, and most of all envisioning "The Afterlife" as a form to fill out and a line to wait in before you're swept away in an "ocean of love" and a fragment of song — maybe "Be-Bop-a-Lula," maybe "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" — that Simon can't quite recall.
Mud Island Amphitheatre
Saturday, October 29th, 8 p.m.