Paul Simon, "In the Blue Light," (Legacy)
Weeks from the end of his farewell concert tour, Paul Simon has released a disc that feels like a valedictory itself.
The concept of "In the Blue Light" is intriguing, with Simon re-recording and re-imagining 10 songs he originally released between 1973 and 2011. None were hits; they're songs he felt were overlooked as oddities, or that he didn't get quite right the first time. While some of this material was obscure for good reason, most of the second looks reward listeners.
The revisits speak to the musical adventurousness that has marked Simon's later years. Many of the originals were at least grounded in the folk-rock style he was primarily known for. Now Simon moves beyond: Wynton Marsalis' trumpet replaces the acoustic guitar on "How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns" and the 1970s electric piano gives way to Sullivan Fortner's real thing on "Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy." The jauntiness of "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" is smoothed into a loping, jazz feel. With Dixieland jazz, Spanish-style guitar and orchestral arrangements, the music is worldly and complex. He's not kicking down the cobblestones.
Simon rewrites some lyrics, some to subtly modernize. An iPhone is added to a scene originally written before the device's invention, and the blues band that appears by the riverbank in a lyric on "Can't Run But" is replaced by a DJ. Most affecting is a rewritten conclusion to 2000's "Love," which is both more specific and more universal than the original.
Simon's age (he's 76) gives the material a grace not always present the first time. A song like "Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy" now feels lived in, not observed by a young reporter. "Darling Lorraine," the fourth song revamped from 2000's "You're the One" disc, is the new album's centerpiece, in large part because you can feel the tenderness, comedy and sadness more acutely through Simon's weathered voice. Simply being placed at the end of a disc where a central theme is the passage of time lends "Questions for the Angels" a poignance missed when the song came out in 2011.
The idea here is so interesting that you'd love to see other artists try it, if only to know the overlooked songs that have stuck with them. "In the Blue Light" is neither nostalgia nor a rescue mission. It's a challenging new work.