Paul Simon Considers God, Man and for Whom the Bell Tolls in Quietly Stunning ‘Seven Psalms’: Album Review
All these decades on, Paul Simon is still looking for angels in the architecture. Maybe especially now; he’s 81 and, like many of his contemporaries, thinking about end-of-life issues both spiritual and corporeal. The observations in his quietly stunning new album, ”Seven Psalms,” reflect a sort of consummate maturity: There aren’t many more stages of ripeness you can move on to, in this life, beyond the one where a hard out looms. “Psalms” is a collection of songs with concerns in the past, present and (maybe) future, with Simon briefly looking back at some bridges burned; looking presently at how little the topical concerns that divide us seem to matter in the face of mortality; and looking ahead to see… well, to see if there is an ahead, as afterlife concerns remain as murky in old age as they did in youth.
“Seven Psalms” is unlike any other Simon album in almost too many ways to list. On the most basic level, the extent to which the singer-songwriter wants you to experience it as a concept album is underscored by the fact that its seven distinct songs — plus two unbilled reprises — are being released digitally as one long track. Sorry, no shuffling, kids. (Prince tried that album-as-a-single-track gambit, once, with “Lovesexy,” but even that record got broken up into individual listens in the streaming era. And, hey, didn’t the original psalmist, the biblical David, break his album up into singles?)
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It’s an odd but understandable move: Nobody is going to be trying hard to get a track from an album dipping into The End of All Things onto radio, even the adult alternative format, and the album really does benefit from being understood as a whole. At 33 minutes, it almost counts as an EP by modern standards, but it feels more like three hours. That’s meant in the most positive possible way, given how much meat Simon gives listeners to chew on in a single-course dinner.
The record begins and ends with bells. One guess for whom they’re rockin’ and tollin’? Death is a constant theme here, although any statement he has to make about it is posed as a series of questions in these sometimes elliptical, sometimes plain-spoken lyrics. Religion, as either myth or reality, is especially on his mind. The opening song, “The Lord,” which has a chorus that’ll come up a few more times before the album is over, directly harks back again and again to the most famous biblical psalm — the Lord-is-my-shepherd one — with some nearly comical twists. It starts off by alluding to the decreasing importance of religion to younger generations: “I’ve been thinking about the great migration / Noon and night they leave the flock,” he points out at the album’s outset. Simon, himself, is not so easily dissuaded from faith as all these happily fleeing sheep, though he’s not sure whether God is a tender savior or impartially doling out justice or terrors: “The Lord is my engineer / The Lord is my record producer” alternates with “The Covid virus is the Lord” and “The Lord is a puff of smoke.” In “My Professional Opinion,” Simon, who is Jewish, floats a half-Christian, half-cynical view of a heavenly Father figure: “All that really matters / Is the one who became us / Anointed and gamed us / With His opinions.” (Let us now bow and LOL.) He also ponders reincarnation, or pure dust, in “Your Forgiveness”: “I have my reasons to doubt / A white light eases the pain / Two billion heartbeats and out / Or does it all begin again?” Still agnostic, after all these years.
But over the short course of the album, there are some things the singer is sure of — like his own regrets, in “Trail of Volcanoes” (no mere bridges on fire in the rear-view for Simon). Or that he found true love, in the record’s sweetest number. “Love Is Like a Braid” (“I lived a life of pleasant sorrows / Until the real deal came”). This last sentiment may or may not be meant to refer to his wife, Edie Brickell, but it seems like a safe bet. Brickell soon enough shows up in the flesh, singing not just harmonies but duet parts in the final two numbers, “The Sacred Harp” and “Wait,” bringing such warmth after some chillier soliloquies that the impression left is that Simon might be a believer, after all. At least he’s enough of one to bring things to a close with himself and Brickell singing a liturgist-style harmony on a closing “amen.”
“Seven Psalms” is just as striking in its musical assemblage, although no one will accuse this complicated listen of bearing excessive earworms. The vast majority of the instrumentation consists of Simon himself plucking acoustic guitar or other stringed instruments, with intermittent bursts of exotic percussion or glockenspiel or bass harmonica that keep things a little bit tense as well as beautiful. He’s mic-ed so closely, you can hear each movement of his arm against the guitar, as if your head were sitting in his lap alongside the instrument. Sometimes the chords feel more classical or jazz-like in nature than like pop or even folk, although “My Professional Opinion” is basically a blues number in disguise. The hardcore fan will recognize all this as a welcome departure , and perhaps even hope might be that Simon will make another one in this distinctly intimate, uncompromising, kinda tricky vein.
Somehow that feels unlikely. “Seven Psalms” feels like a summation, something Simon felt compelled to do after previously telling himself he was done making new albums (his last record of new material came out in 2016). Not many artists get the chance to consciously do a final record; the primary examples oft-cited are David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.” (There are reasonable doubts as to whether Bowie really was thinking of “Blackstar” as his swan song or not, but its legend as a deliberate last will and testament will live on, regardless.)
With health apparently not an issue, there’s no compelling reason not to think and hope that Simon could make more records after this, apart from for the fact that he already considered himself retired from record-making prior to turning the studio lights back on for this one. Let’s hope so; better that he go on making records even half as rich as this than have his recording career go out on a perfect note for its own sake. Yet there’s no denying “Seven Psalms” has the feel of something that might have been designed as a true show-stopper. If the collection is a cap to his catalog of new work, it’s a testament to how inquisitive and engaged an artist can be this late in a career. Even as he ponders finality, you hear throughout the record how much, to Simon, these are still the days of miracle and wonder.
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