Bob Dylan is America’s greatest songwriter of the rock era. Period. He invented the job of singer-songwriter. No debate. Who’s No. 2? That’s debatable. Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and even Prince belong in the discussion. But my vote goes to Paul Simon, who performs this week at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. Literate songs. Whether he’s writing about the American dream, a downtrodden character or love (“And you read your Emily Dickinson/And I my Robert Frost”), Simon can be wonderfully poetic and intelligent.
2. Memorable melodies. He can write ear worms like Neil Diamond. Countless hummable Simon songs are embedded in your brain — from “The Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” to “Late in the Evening” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
3. Great hooks. There are melodies and there are choruses. He’ll hook you either way. Dig, if you will, these choruses: “Mrs. Robinson,” “Graceland,” “You Can Call Me Al” — you can sing them all because they’re so catchy.
4. World music adventurer. He introduced mainstream pop audiences to such new-to-the-U.S. sounds as Jamaica (“Mother and Child Reunion”), Peru (“El Condor Pasa”) and South Africa (“Graceland”).
5. Alienation and isolation. He’s understood both of these recurring themes as deeply as any songwriter. But he’s intellectualized them and made them easier to digest by enveloping them in pretty music. Examples: “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “American Tune,” “The Boxer,” “Duncan.”
6. Topical but not always timeless. Never known for writing protest or even political pieces, Simon certainly has delivered social commentary such as “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” an impressionistic antiwar number; “American Tune,” a reflection on disillusionment in the Nixon era, and “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission),” a satirical tirade about personalities (“I’ve been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored,” etc.).
7. Inventive rhythms. Melodies are important to Simon, but so are rhythms. Think of the salsa beat of “Late in the Evening,” the African grooves of the 1986 “Graceland” album and the various Latin American sounds on 1990’s “The Rhythm of the Saints.”
8. Growth and surprise. Simon, 74, is not one to stand still musically; he often counts on his collaborators such as gospel great Claude Jeter and African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo to help him navigate new territory. Like Dylan, he has embraced all kinds of American music, including gospel (“Love Me Like a Rock”), Dixieland (“Take Me to the Mardi Gras”), jazz (“Still Crazy After All These Years”) and doo-wop (“Bernadette”). And he also throws in styles rooted in Europe, including classical, folk music and even Italian dance music on his new “Stranger to Stranger” album. It’s simple: Simon likes to surprise us.
9. Student of American culture. He has consistently used touchstones of our culture to explain our psyches — from Joe DiMaggio and the Statue of Liberty to Kodachrome film and Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion.
10. Humor. For being such a deadly serious dude (“Think Too Much” is a song that describes him best), Simon is not afraid to be occasionally playful (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”) and funny (the new “Wristband” about backstage access at concerts).