Seven Psalms by Paul Simon: an early review

I am sometimes tempted to think that agnostics make the best writers, certainly the most interesting. Agnostics tend to capture the drama of decision/indecision rather than the dogma of reinforcing what they already believe; they invite us on a journey to certainty or to new complexities. Agnostics show us their working out and, even if they never reach a solution, being made privy to that process can be compelling.

Paul Simon has been a major figure in my life since I was ten years old. The first single I ever bought was ‘You can call me Al’, the first album Graceland. I was instantly hooked. My young mind felt at home with Simon’s keen eye for the surreal and the absurd, his language was just above my range of vocabulary, and the music felt like a thing of permanence and power. An added advantage for me was that Paul Simon’s championing of South African artists served as a foil for the casual racism that my childhood was surrounded by (I knew nothing then of potential issues around appropriation). Perhaps the most attractive thing for me was that Paul Simon sounded serious. Certainly his songs could contain flippancy and playfulness, but amid the plastic pop of the 1980s Paul Simon was a genuine artist – a poet and professional musician. I loved him then, I love him now. I believe that his work had a formative effect on how I see the world.

The Power of Maybe

In the past 15 years or so, Paul Simon’s seriousness and earnestness have begun to turn towards matters of God and the hereafter. There are certainly references to the divine right across his corpus (‘God only knows, and God makes his plans’ etc.) but Surprise and So Beautiful or So What introduced a sense of pilgrimage, of wrestling, and of uneasy repudiation of belief in God. In ‘I Don’t Believe’ Simon follows the breadcrumb trail of common grace only to resolve his pursuit in the irresolute terms of ‘maybe and maybe, and maybe some more, maybe is the exit I’m looking for’.

It is this very ‘maybe’ that has made his later work intriguing. Simon is not tipping his hat to a religious market but applying his mind to whether there is a God, and what he might be like. Unlike the conversion of other prominent artists of his generation (Bob Dylan in the 1970s etc) Simon is not making any promises to God, to himself, or to his listener. Instead he is discerning what his options might be, where the evidence might lead, and what the implications of all of that might be. Religious affiliation might be an accident of birth (‘How Can You Live in the Northeast?), and the hereafter might be a mundane and acrid extension of modern bureaucracy (‘The Afterlife’), but Simon is never dismissive, nor does he land on easy answers either way.

All of this makes for genuinely great art. The sincerity of the search cannot be gainsaid, but relief and closure evade him and his listener over and over again. Christian listeners might simply want Simon to ‘get across the line’ but his is a tantalising journey towards the light which insists on taking time to honestly look at the shadows along the way.

Those strains that set his heart ablaze

This extended pilgrimage lends Simon’s latest album Seven Psalms all the more poignancy. His ready admission that there was a ‘givenness’ to this work, that it came to him with a sense of revelation and numinous power should pique our interest right away. These are early morning meditations, the new wakened breathings of a man in his winter season. There is lyrical beauty right across the seven songs (‘Home, home, sun on my doorstep/Shocks me to find/I’m a child again entwined/In your love’), there are hints of pantheism (‘The Lord is the earth I ride on’), and there are playful engagements with modern culture (‘I heard two cows in a conversation…’).

Woven through all of this are threads which should stop any careful listener in their tracks. Amid the turbulence and tranquility that lyric and guitar evoke, Simon occasionally breaks cover and entertains the realities of faith, even though he has his ‘reasons to doubt’. It is these outbreaks, these muted theophanies that make Seven Psalms feel like a culmination, if not a conclusion, of the pilgrimage so far. There is the appearance of the Messiah (‘All that really matters is the one who became us/Anointed and gained us with his opinion’), there is existential angst about advancing years and impending death (‘Wait/I’m not ready/I’m just packing my gear’). Most breathtaking of all are Simon’s intimations of the divine. These are not merely conceptually interesting, but brilliantly realised in poetic terms:

That David played to make his songs of praise
We long to hear those strains
That set his heart ablaze
The ringing strings
The thought that God turns music into bliss.
(from ‘The sacred harp’)

Dip your hand in Heaven’s waters
God’s imagination…
All of life’s abundance in a drop of condensation.
(from ‘Your Forgiveness’)

Listeners hoping that all of this might conclude in a statement of belief, may misunderstand what Simon is doing, and they may also miss the point of what a Psalm is for. These snatches of praise, of piety, of doubt, of angst, of play and complaint, of the trivial, are the stuff of true psalmody, hints of personal experience that issue in Everyman explorations of who we are and who God is. Settled dogma is not the domain of such snatches of song.

Paul Simon continues his pilgrimage towards the light and perhaps(some of us may hope) the Lord, generously inviting us to listen to his musings and perplexities along the way.

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