Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Stranger

While being touted as a "new Paul Simon song," this is in fact a remix of "The Werewolf," the opening track to Simon's Stranger to Stranger album; the "new" track also samples "The Clock," an instrumental on this same album.

On this track, according to Spin magazine, Simon is "backed and drastically overhauled by Nico Segal... and Nate Fox of Chance [the Rapper]'s default ensemble, the Social Experiment."

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Like to Get to Know You

Simon's current marriage to Edie Brickell is his longest by far, of his three. However, the course of true love never does run smooth, and the couple had an argument in 2014 that-- largely due to the fact that they are a celebrity couple-- made headlines. To show the public that they were fine after this bump in the road, they released a duet titled "Like to Get to Know You." (Thanks to my readers for spotting this one!)

This simple, Everly Brothers-style song is about a longtime couple who, despite their years together, seem frustrated that they still don't know each other well. At first, this is a source of frustration-- how can this be? Yet, they re-frame it is a positive: Well, it'll be like a new relationship, then!

"You share my heart/ you share my kids and my dogs," one sings, "But I swear I don't know you at all." They other responds: "You see my face/ Every night, every day/ But I swear you don't see me at all."

Echoing the classic "They Can't Take That Away From Me," with its intimate, personal observations about the way the other wears a hat and holds a knife, they sing: "I know how you like your coffee/ I know how bad you drive."

Meanwhile, they see other couples "in the movie line" or they "check out people in the checkout line." Those other couples seem very comfortable in their intimacy. They are "holding hands and laughing," and "exchanging loving glances." Unlike this couple, who seem estranged.

Still, they "wouldn't trade places" with those couples, even so. Why not? "I'd like to get to know you again."

In the title track to his 2016 album, Stranger to Stranger, Simon wonders if they would have gotten together had they met now: "Stranger to stranger/ If we met for the first time... could you imagine us falling in love again?"

He answered this question, in a way, years before. In 2014, they each said "I don't know you at all," but that they'd "like to get to know" each other now.

What's the difference, really, if the "stranger"-- the person you "don't know at all"-- is someone you meet on the street... or in your own bedroom?

Next Song: (TBA)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Insomniac's Lullaby

The song is about a lullaby, but we have to get to that in a minute. Because the song, while about a lullaby, is itself a prayer.

After all, it starts: "Oh Lord," and anything that starts that way is a prayer. And what is the insomniac's prayer? "Oh Lord, don't keep me up all night."

It'd be a lonesome vigil. The only other one up would be the Moon, what that only has "desolate eyes." And to journey all those "miles [to] the sunrise" with only such "sockets" as "travelling companions" [OK, so that's from "Graceland," but still] would be too much to bear.

But the darkness "invites" a tune. Simon has been personifying Darkness since he called it his "old friend" all those decades ago, and maybe now we finally know why they are so long acquainted. After all, Darkness would be an insomniac's friend, or at least a familiar face. Anyway, the tune the darkness invites seems to be this very tune.

While he is awake, he hears a "siren" sound "in the distance," but instead of being upset by it-- after all, it means someone is in trouble-- he calls it a "song." To let us know he is being facetious, he complains that the sound "rattles the old window frame."

And then, something unexpected happens: "Gradually, angels reveal their existence." So, they were there the whole time, only now they are letting themselves be seen. The fact that he does not elaborate about these divine visitors, as the listener might expect, leads us to believe that the thin wisps of light that must seep into his dark room resemble angels. "There's nothing and no one to blame," he says, worried that we might accuse him of abusing alcohol (etc.), or having a tumor, what with him seeing angels and all. Maybe he could see what was really causing these angelic apparitions if he put on his glasses..? Lack of sleep can cause hallucinations, after all.

Even if this is a prayer, these visions are not angels. If they were, the speaker would not be talking so much about being alone, as he does before when he says the "desolate" Moon is his only companion, and later when he... well, let's get to that part right now.

Now comes the prayer again. This time, the thing he fears is not the daunting distance until dawn but coldness of some sort also lasting a too-long time: "winter that lasts until June." This may be the lack of human companionship... at least the sort that is awake. So again, he's alone, with no angelic company. (Also, Simon just rhymed "Moon" with "tune" and "June" so slyly we didn't notice.)

Now, two choruses and a verse into the song, we finally learn what the Insomniac's Lullaby is. It's a song that turns out to be one word long:

"Sleep."

Well, of course. What else do you need?

The next verse seems to be about death. "They say all roads lead to a river." While I have never heard "they" say any such thing (all roads lead to Rome, I thought) it is true that every major city is built around a river-- every city more than 100 years old, at least. A river was necessary as a source of water, but also transportation of people and goods.

But, "they" supposedly continue, "one day/ The river comes up to your door." Well, there are plenty of places that don't flood, so this must mean something else. What comes to every door? Only, as Franklin said, "death and taxes."

Hearing this axiom, the speaker asks, "How will the builder of bridges deliver us all/ To the faraway shore?" This is less sincere doubt than simple amazement. When watching a magic trick or feat of athletic prowess, we mutter, "How does he do it?" but only rhetorically.

This is a much nicer metaphor for death than some hooded skeleton reaping our souls with a huge blade, isn't it? A walk across a bridge, is all death is. (Or, if you're Jacob or Robert Plant, you may prefer a ladder or stairway.)

In the next iteration of the chorus, the speaker again asks for sleep, but now so that he can avoid having to face "questions [he doesn't] understand" and "wrestle [his] fears." This is completely understandable. Who wants to do that, all night?

"The sound in my ears/ Is the music that's sweeping the land/ The Insomniac's Lullaby." Maybe the "lullaby" is the agglomeration of sounds coming from everyone insomniac's radio and stereo. Or maybe it's his own radio, and he's listening to contemporary pop (on his headset, so as not to wake his wife) for inspiration. After all, a musician likes to stay current.

Finally, he arrives at dawn, the "light from the East." It is "soft as a rose," and that color, too. "As if all is forgiven," meaning that the questions and fears of the night are resolved, or at least feel that way.

"Wolves become sheep" at this time. The nocturnal animals, like wolves and burglars, are replaced by pleasanter ones, like sheep and ice-cream truck drivers. Also, the menacing gray clouds of night are supplanted by white, woolly ones.

It might be a reference to his song "Pigs Sheep and Wolves," but more likely it's a circling-back to the "Werewolf" of the opening track.

Alternately, one famous sleep aid is "counting sheep"; the idea of imagining sheep jumping a fence, and counting them doing so, is said to help one drift off. This connection of sheep and sleep is possible because of how the song ends: "We are who we are/ or we're not" but either way, "At least we'll eventually all fall asleep."

Like any good bedtime story, the song-- and the album-- end with a yawn and a "nighty-night."

Is the song about death? Is "we'll all fall asleep" about... the Big Sleep, as it is in Hamlet? I don't think so. There are no insomniacs when it comes to death, no "in-necr-iacs." Some people complain, "I just can't sleep," but no one complains, "I just can't die." So this is about sleep, and to the degree it is about the lack thereof, it is about the resolution of that issue.

It's also a very pretty song.

Simon has recently stated that he is retiring from music. If he is, he has earned it. But I can't imagine he is. Music has been his entire life. Now, he is 75. He just finished working on an album and touring the world in support of it. He's tired, is all, and he's talking like a tired person. Once he has a vacation, I bet we'll get another album-- or two-- out of him yet.

I just think that if he stops making music, he'll die. And he isn't ready to do that yet.


MUSICAL NOTE: Bobby McFerrin does the background vocals. In pop circles, he is considered a one-hit wonder because of the dippy-- but perfectly so-- song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." In jazz circles, he is considered a living legend and one of the greatest vocalists ever to live, able to create whole arrangements with just his voice and body slaps. In classical circles, he is that fun conductor who sings the notes along with the instruments and harmonizes with them. Just go on YouTube, type in his name, and enjoy.

Some of the instruments were invented by a man named Harry Partch, who could hear 43 tones to an octave; most mortals can hear only 12. So had to invent instruments to make those sounds. They have names like: cloud chamber bowls, sonic canons, kithara and the chromelodeon. The original instruments are at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, where the song was recorded.

Next Song: Like to Get to Know You



Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Riverbank

The widely reported figure of "22 veteran suicides a day" is an overstatement, with regard to young or recent veterans. Among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the early 21st Century, it's about 1 a day. That's still far too many, of course. Each such death sends a shockwave through its community, and this song is the story of one such impact.

But the song takes a moment to reveal its story. It starts with a startling nighttime phone call. The news is sad, and the recipient does not go back to sleep, but prays all night instead.

There was a "price already paid," but now on top of that price comes an awful tax: "A son gone to the grave." Nothing is sadder than outliving one's own children, we are told.

And so there is a memorial service, a "sorrowful parade," to be made to the riverbank.

This son was highly thought of. The high school and police station have shut down for the day so the entire town can attend the service. There is crying and hugging and a choir.

Now we get more information: "Army dude." So, the family lost a son in battle. How terrible-- yet we agree this is noble, and a price both the family and solider were willing to pay.

Except, no. That "price" was already paid. He was gone from his home and family, he was in harm's way, he lost friends to his enemies... he paid his dues.

So, if he didn't die in battle, he died after he came home? Oh, what a horrible irony. It must have been a car crash or something.

No, not that either: "Nowhere to run/ Nowhere to turn to/ He turns to the gun."

It was suicide. Brought on by PTSD, the psychological scars of war or other trauma.

"It's a cross" to bear. It's a "stone," a weight he carried. "It's a fragment of bone," which could be what he saw of a friend, or himself. And he found no one else who could help him carry this weight, or relieve him of it.

The song pivots again to the mourners: "It's a long walk home/ From the riverbank."

And then back to the victim. Surely, we can all understand the veteran's insomnia, his "nightmares" and their incessant reminders that "life is cheap."

We end with the "Army  dude's mama." She is "limp as a rag." Among her thoughts must be: "All these people, mourning now... where were they when my son was hurting?"

She is holding a flag presented to her by the Army, folded neatly into a triangle. She is walking home, past the car "dealerships and farms."

And..."Then a triangle of light/ Kissed the red and blue and white/ Along the riverbank."

What might this be? Lights, from a spotlight down to a laser pointer, are usually round, not triangular. Was this a Heavenly light? Is the triangle a reference to the Trinity? I looked up the expression "triangle of light" but found nothing useful. I admit this image has me stumped. (NOTE: A comment by a reader gave me an idea of what it might be, weeks after I had posted this. It could be the sunlight refracting off the triangular, clear case the folded flag is kept in, once it was removed from the casket and folded. See the comments for a more detailed explanation.)

Whatever it is in specific, it is meant to be a calming, reassuring gesture, judging by the word "kissed." (In "Sound of Silence," Simon writes of eyes being "stabbed by a neon light," quite the opposite effect of light.)

In "Wartime Prayers," Simon discusses the kinds of prayers the mothers of soldiers might make. Surely many pray for their sons to come back, and come back whole if possible. But how many pray that their sons, and now daughters, come back mentally whole?

(This is far from Simon's first song about suicide, but his first in a while. Also it is not the first to use the imagery of a "riverbank;" that was also in the song "Can't Run But.")

How abysmally sad, to have a war kill your son even after he'd survived it. Some kinds of shrapnel just don't show up on any MRI.


Musical Note:
Flamenco music was a major inspiration for Simon on this album, especially the rhythmic stamping and clapping. One of his percussionists, Jamey Haddad, introduced him to a Boston flamenco troupe. They ended up recording the basic rhythm tracks for four of the songs: this one, "The Werewolf," the title track "Stranger to Stranger,"  and the first song to debut from the album, "Wristband."

In fact, the song intentionally uses the same clapping rhythm, and some of the same bass lines, as "Wristband."


Next Song: Insomniac's Lullaby

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Proof of Love

This is a deeply spiritual song, even a religious one.

Even though "love" is in the title, this is not romantic love that is being spoken of, asked for "proof" of, but... love itself, as a concept.

"Does love exist?" the speaker asks of God. "Well, then... prove it!"

The first part of a song describes a journey. The speaker has no "guide," but sets out anyway. Oh, and it is late in the day-- or perhaps late in life-- so he wants to set out "before the bells of twilight peal" (those would be the "vespers," for those unfamiliar with Catholic timekeeping; the ones in the morning are "matins," as explained in the nursery rhyme "Frere Jacques.").

We're going to guess the "twilight" reference means speaker is older, as the first line is "Begin again-- no easy trick." So he has begun before, and now has to start all over.

At least the road is easy, a "spiral" downhill path (this could be a reference to "Spiral Highway," an obscure Simon song from his One-Trick Pony film that did not end up on the soundtrack).

But is the road easy? It reminds him of a coiled "serpent." Not only does he not have a "walking stick," he doesn't have any food! Just a "teaspoon of desire for [his] meal." Also, "the road is steep/ The air is thin." It seems less like he's on a hill than a mountain.

So, this is not an easy downhill path. This is more of a "it's all downhill from here" path. In fact the whole "town" is downhill, which implies that others face this same fate.

At this point, our speaker needs a shot of faith. So he prays, crying: "I trade my tears to ask The Lord for proof of love." He's not even sure he believes in God, or if there are only "stars" above him (a far cry from the prayer offered at the end of the song "Duncan"-- which also mentions "stars" and "The Lord," which Simon has begun playing again in concert; in fact, a new recording of it is included on the deluxe version of this very album).

To his own prayer, he says, "Amen." Or it may be others in the town who testify to his prayer.

Then... he seems to receive an answer to his prayer! Only, it does not come from Heaven above but from "inside [his] skin." It is a response of consolation. "Your days won't end with night," it reassures, "Let your body heal its pain."

Another clue. This "road" is the road to recovery, perhaps from an illness or injury. That explains "begin again." In physical therapy, a person may have to re-learn skills mastered as a child, like speaking or walking.

What does the voice recommend as treatment? An injection of Nature, first: "Feel the sun/ Drink the rain." Next, a large dose of faith: "bathe beneath a waterfall of light."

This time, he tearfully prays for proof of love to know "what my dreams are made of" (The original line for Shakespeare's The Tempest is "we are such stuff as dreams are made on.") He wants to know that his dreams are made of something substantial and good, not flimsy and false. If there is love, he can dare to hope.

He has kept walking downward, meantime, and now he can see "the valley below." It is, he sees, "an ocean of debris." Not the answer he was banking on.

OK, time for another prayer. No tears this time. At long last-- does love exist? "Love is all I seek!" he says, and says again. Now, he is out of tears, and out of "words." So he turns to "music" to express himself.

He is exhausted with walking and worry. Spent, he lays down by a "white oak tree." He has had it. He asked for proof of love, and got a treacherous road that led him to a valley full of rubble. He was supposed to find nourishing sunshine and rain, and only has hunger and "pain" and not even enough "air"!

He as much as dares death to come-- "No deadly nightshade, belladonna, dare lay a leaf on me." Nightshade is a poisonous plant; its Latin name is "atropa belladonna."

But the night is "silent." It is "still as prayer." And it's not "dark," either. In fact, "Darkness fills with light/ Love on Earth is everywhere." Beautiful.

But let's unpack it anyway. If he wanted to get underway before "twilight," and that implies that he was old or, as we learn later, near death, if due to not age but ailment... what does "darkness" mean? It means, well, death.

One prayer was answered by a sense of calm, the promise that his days would not end with night, and that he would bathe in a waterfall of light. If this is his death, then that promise comes true. His days don't end with "night" but with "light," and if the light fills the world, it is certainly enough to bathe in.

There is an alternate interpretation I would like to offer, though. It is foreshadowed by the reference to "bells of twilight." It's possible that this song is not just religious-- it's possible to read it so that it is about religion itself.

Some clues: A man is coming down a mountain. He doesn't have his usual "stick" with him. He is talking to God on the way. There is a reference to a "serpent." When he gets to the bottom, the valley, he finds disaster.

Might this be about... Moses? Walking down the mountainside of Sinai? And then coming to the bottom to find a pit of idolatry. (Moses turns his stick, or staff, into a serpent more than once.)

The next clue: "Silent night." Or should we say, "Silent Night." Simon already recorded that carol, so he knows it well, and it's about the birth of Jesus. A "tree" is a common metaphor for the Cross, too. So Moses asks for proof of love, and gets it, in Jesus.

I'm not saying this is what Simon means to say. But it is possible to read this interpretation into the song.

More likely, the song is about someone dying peacefully after suffering from cancer or a stroke or something, after there had been some initial hope of recovery.

We get some information as to the symptoms. Likely there was some blindness involved, requiring a "guide" or "stick" to help him find his way; now, he is supposed to be able to walk without that. He can see again, but has been spending much time in bed, gazing upward at what he hoped was more than just "stars." Also, he has trouble breathing ("the air is thin"), and at the end had trouble speaking ("words desert me").

He decides to try natural remedies ("drink the rain"), like a sunlamp ("a waterfall of light") and to "let [his] body heal" itself. He doesn't want toxic chemotherapy, or some poison that will kill him quicker ("no deadly nightshade"). But all he gets is sicker ("an ocean of debris"). Then he dies, and in death finds peace, and light, and love.

What is our the proof, then, of love? Of all things, it may be death. Dying is terrible-- painful, frightening. It takes you apart, piece by piece. But then you get to die.

And rest. In peace.

(NOTE: It would be interesting to contrast this song with Simon's similarly named "Proof," which contained the repeated lines: "Faith is an island in the setting sun/ Proof is the bottom line for everyone.")


Next Song: The Riverbank





Sunday, June 19, 2016

In a Parade

What is going on and what we think is going on may be two different things. If the difference is vast enough, we consider that a mental illness.

The song is set in the emergency room, or "ER," of a hospital. Some nights, it is quiet. The speaker compares this almost-silence to a piece of medical equipment that makes some noise, but not much-- the EKG. This stands for "electrocardiogram" (why there is a K in the abbreviation but none in the word being abbreviated is another story). It's the heart-rate monitor that goes "beep" every time your heart beats, and "beeeeeeep" when your heart stops.

Anyway, tonight is not one of those quieter nights. Tonight, the place is flooded with "broken bones" and "wounded souls" (compare this to the imagery in the folk-doctor's room in "Spirit Voices" or even the first part of "American Tune"). The injured are doing paperwork or calling someone. The place is busy, even bustling, but not at all chaotic.

Into this scene comes someone, however, who does not see this commotion for what it is. To him, it's a "parade"... and he is smack in the middle of it. He can't even "talk to you now," because after all, a parade is no occasion for a conversation.

Clearly, this person cannot fill out his own paperwork. So someone else does, and we get to read it. He is diagnosed as "schizophrenic"; his outlook is judged as "guarded," meaning there is a smidgen of hope, but not a wide smidgen, as smidgens go. He is given an anti-psychotic medication meant to re-balance his brain's chemistry.

We don't see the lines on the form regarding name, age, address or the other usual information, possibly because these are blank, in turn because they are unknown and unknowable. The only person who could answer is otherwise... occupied. But that line on the form, his occupation, they are able to determine.

He's a "street angel."

Yes, the same one we met a couple of songs back. He was brought into the ER by someone who didn't know where else to bring him.

The clinicians do try to have a conversation with him, but it's not all that informative. He tells them that he drank some orange, then grape, soda. And he may have... perhaps along with some medicines that may have been added to these in order to make dosing him easier.

But this seems to focus him on sugary imagery, because next, he explains: "My head's a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it." That may seem odd, but he's not necessarily being inaccurate, just metaphoric. Examining a true schizophrenic is fascinating to medical science. He may have been in another institution or institute in which everyone around him wanted to use him as a guinea pig for their experiments or analysis. We often forget that such probing is noticed by its subject... even if we think they are, mentally, on another planet. As for the lollipop image, we use the expression "Everyone wants a piece of me" when we feel overwhelmed with requests.

He explains why he wears a hooded sweatshirt, twice. The first time, he says he wants to "cover his mistake," and the second time "so I won't get a ticket." Well, is someone were trying to get in your head, wouldn't your instinct be to cover it? Maybe his mistake, to him, was letting someone analyze him in the first place. And "getting a ticket" is sure to mean being punished, possibly for resisting treatment.

Lastly, he says, "I write my verse for the universe," which echoes what he'd said in the original song. "That's who I am," he concludes. He is a poet, and he generously shares that poetry, with everyone, for free.

Not insisting you get paid for your work? Now, that's just plain crazy.

The Street Angel is-- fundamentally and mentally-- a poet, and so he speaks in poetry. He needs a psychiatrist who was a minor in literature to interpret what he says. This is how he interfaces, to the degree that he does at all, with the world. So he needs a poetry-to-mundanity translator to communicate.

Now, where are angels? In some other-where called "Heaven." Yet, they interact with us, on our plane of existence. What must they think of us humans-- how must they perceive us, through that veil between the physical and meta-physical? And if they tried to explain that to us in ways they could manage, in ways they think we could perceive... would we think they were poets? Or mentally ill?

In any case, our Street Angel is off the street. Let's hope the doctors let him keep some of the angel part, too.


Musical Note:
Some of the drum tracks here were recycled from the song "Cool Papa Bell," also off of this album.

But the more interesting sample is slowed-down, played-backward tracks of gospel songs from the 1930s. These sounds sounded, to Simon, like the words "street angel" and some of the other lyrics.

Next Song: Proof of Love






Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stranger to Stranger

The title track to this album is a love song, and a lovely one, at that. Simon married singer-songwriter Edie Brickell in 1992, so this song comes nearly 25 years into their marriage.

He asks if they would fall in love again if they met now: "If we met for the first time/ Could you imagine us falling in love again?" The language echoes his song "Old Friends": "Can you imagine us, years from today/ Sharing a park bench?"

(Side note: in that song, he muses, "How terribly strange to be 70." The year this album was released, Simon was 74.)

This song continues: "Words and melody... fall from the summer trees," he says, "So the old story goes." I have never heard the story of songs falling from trees... if any of my readers have, I hope they share that story with me.

Why is this here? Perhaps he means to say that he and his wife pair as well as words and melody, and as naturally as leaves falling from trees.

In any case, how wonderful and amazing that, after two decades and more, he still awaits her very "walk[ing] across his doorway." He is "jittery" with "joy," even. She is like a drug to him: "I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say," when she is near.

He finds their relationship an "easy harmony," and it must be something when two such great singers actually do harmonize. And when there is a problem, the "old-time remedies" still work.

And oh, problems do happen. Some can be compared to repetitive-stress injuries: "Most of the time/ It's just hard working/ The same piece of clay / Day after day." The "clay" represents the banality of life... or, seeing as how Adam was made of clay, the banality of people.

Other problems lie not within the relationship, but its individual members: "Certain melodies tear your heart apart/ Reconstruction is a lonesome art." Some losses, like the death of a parent or a career downturn, affect one of them more than the other.

What else? "All the carnage." Again, this could refer to death or illness, but also fighting and saying hurtful things, separations and silences-- psychological damage. But these things are discreet and definable.

Others are more effusive and evasive: "All the useless detours." A couple could spend five years in a house neither likes, because each thinks the other one likes it. A couple could take years to decide to get married, or divorced, and just be living in a limbo of inertia.

But despite all these thing, he still believes: "Love endures." The song ends with Simon repeating "I love you" over and over in waltz time, then: "Words and melody/ Easy harmony." When they are in tune, what a beautiful song.

"I love to watch you walk across my doorway," he tells her-- still crazy about her, after all these years.


Musical Note:
This is one of the four songs Simon spiced with flamenco on this album; the others are "The Riverbank," "The Werewolf" and "Wristband." In this, some of the rhythms are actually recordings of the dancer's steps.

Some of the guitar was done by Cameroons native Vincent Nguini, who has been with Simon since Rhythm of the Saints.

Next Song: In a Parade