Paul Simon Essay - Critical Essays

Simon, Paul


Paul Simon 1941–

(Has also written under the name Paul Kane) American song-writer, musician, screenwriter.

Paul Simon has composed music since the age of fifteen. His first mature work was done on the album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM which also introduced the team of Simon and Art Garfunkel. Although it was not successful, it led the way to other works which were. And it introduced Simon's initial masterpiece "Sounds of Silence," which is about the lack of communication between people.

Simon and Garfunkel's songs of the individual's alienation and isolation in society gained popularity on the campuses of America. Simon's lyrics—intellectual, dense, but subtle and understated, reflected the tastes and emotions of college students of the 1960s. Some critics compared Simon's lyrics to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman, and E. A. Robinson, while others considered his approach to his emotional material too analytical and academic. In 1967, Simon composed, and Simon and Garfunkel performed, several songs for Mike Nichols's film The Graduate, the story of a disillusioned and disoriented college graduate. In 1971, after releasing their best-selling album Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel went their separate ways.

Since being on his own, Simon's music is distinctively different from that of Simon and Garfunkel. Various influences, such as reggae, gospel, and dixieland jazz, can be heard. The poetic lyrics and professionalism are still evident, but the songs have narrowed in scope to examine Simon's personal views of life and love. His latest work, One Trick Pony (the film and the soundtrack), portrays the aging rock star questioning his place in the industry today.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Simon's songs is that they appeal to more than one generation. As Josh Greenfeld has written: "Their message—one of literate protest against the pangs of youth, the pathos of old age and the matter-of-fact hypocrisies of the middle aged and the middle class in between—seems to have transcended the communications breakdown, bridged the generation gap…." It is this quality which leads critics to praise Simon as a mature artist.

Stefan Kanfer

Instead of following the mainstream of the major popular lyricists, Paul Simon seems to have skipped Freshman Composition (Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein) and majored in 20th Century Poetry, principally T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman and E. A. Robinson. In The Dangling Conversation he aims for no less than a Prufrock effect:

And the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
Are the borders of our lives.
Yes, we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
"Can analysis be worth while?"
"Is the theater really dead?"

And in A Most Peculiar Man, he restates Robinson in a song about a man who lives "within a house, within a room, within himself," who committed suicide, "and all the people said, 'What a shame that he's dead, but wasn't he a most peculiar man?'"

Like all young men hovering on the brink of life, Simon and Garfunkel are a little too obsessed with the death of things, a little too enchanted with disenchantment. Far more than half their recorded numbers speak poignantly of loss—of love, or youth (I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song. / I'm twenty-two now but I won't be for long), or loneliness (Hello darkness, my old friend, / I've come to talk to you again, /...

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Ellen Willis

The first pop performers to straddle the generation gap were Simon and Garfunkel…. Paul Simon (he writes the songs; Art Garfunkel arranges them) became a "rock poet," dealing with such non-cliché subjects as the soullessness of commercial society and man's inability to communicate. This appealed to kids who hadn't read much modern poetry but knew what it was supposed to be about, or were over impressed with their own nascent Weltschmerz, or both. As for parents, they could feel at ease because the catchwords were familiar; they had read "Dover Beach" and "Richard Cory," and maybe even "The Waste Land," in school. And it was reassuring that two bona-fide alienated young rock poets wanted most of all to communicate, not to spit in their eye. (p. 179)

S. & G.'s first hit single, "The Sounds of Silence," was a re-release, with a superimposed rock beat, of a song originally included in their folk album "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." … I liked that record in spite of its ersatz protest, which it—well, communicated, even though the dubbed-in drums happily obscured most of the lyrics. Perhaps it was this unintended irony that saved the song; perhaps it was the melody. In any case, the over-all effect was mysterious and moving. But the songs that followed were just arty bores. The plebeian beat disappeared in favor of lush, gutless arrangements that ruined Simon's better-than-average melodies and emphasized his...

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Ralph Gleason

[Simon & Garfunkel's] songs are mainly poems of alienation, loneliness, and poignant disenchantment, with a few that are richly colorful, romantic love songs….

The deep sense of social alienation which was so shocking when Sounds of Silence first appeared, is still there. Simon has since written several songs with a wry humorous touch to them and some others which are ballads of sophisticated romance….

The thing is that Paul Simon's lyrics and the performance of them by Simon & Garfunkel reach out directly to the product of the generation and the credibility gaps to those cogs in the educational system who have begun to think, as well as to those who love music. Overs,… Fakin' It and Punky's Dilemma grow on me. They are excellent songs. Sounds of Silence, I Am a Rock and Poem on an Underground Wall are hymns of our time. And Feelin' Groovy, At the Zoo and Cloudy are that combination of pure fun and poignancy that marks the best American ballads….

If any of the new generation of songwriters is going to write a musical, Paul Simon is the most likely. He has the poem-song style under control, a frightening record of good songs and a visionary gift combining humor and biting insights that could make a great success of a musical score.

Ralph Gleason, "The Artistry of Simon and Garfunkel," in Jazz & Pop (© 1968 by Jazz Press Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. 7, No. 7, July, 1968, p. 26.

Ellen Sander

[Bridge Over Troubled Water] is a model of consistency and professionalism. The title song, opening the album, is both sad and mighty, disturbing and comforting in one tonal exercise…. As the shape of the album begins to take form, it becomes a song for children, for the child in all of us. It ceases to be music bound by generational conceit and loses nothing in the process.

"Keep the Customer Satisfied" is one of those Paul Simon novelettes that eludes and delights with bits and pieces of image, feeling, character, and sequence. Sad, lonely, and unaccepting, "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" closes the side on a note of reflection….

It's a retrospective, almost amusing view of the artists as song stylists, growing, changing, marking off the passage of time in tune. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are the architects of songs, building rather than blurting, shaping, defining, and contouring their pieces so the listener can live in them for a while…. (p. 91)

It was Simon and Garfunkel who spanned the musical bridge between the [Everly Brothers] and the Byrds, opening the door to the folk rock that spawned contemporary rock at its most righteous. Here they've brought it back together again, right next to their most current creations, intact, whole, forever new, and young. It's a delight, but there's little surprise that it works perfectly.

A lonely, bewildered, and sad coda, "A Song for the Asking," closes Bridge Over Troubled Water with thoughtfulness and a very intimate pang. Paul Simon always seems to counterpoint his music with wistfulness, a curious persistence on the part of so successful and prolific a writer….

Simon and Garfunkel have taken the poetry and given it back to the lyrics. They have created songs, not opera, the text of which is lyric, not poem. They're printed on the back of the album jacket for any pedant who wants to read, analyze, compare, or expostulate. But, no matter. In twenty years, singers will be singing them. (p. 98)

Ellen Sander, "Simon & Garfunkel: The Singers and the Songs," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 9, February 28, 1970, pp. 91, 98.

Gregg Mitchell

All the campus folkies were in a tizzy. The big day had finally arrived! After two years—two whole years—of waiting, they finally had a new Simon & Garfunkel album [Bridge Over Troubled Water] to mull over.

That the duo could only come up with 11 new songs in two years didn't seem to bother those fans. That nearly all of those songs were hopelessly mediocre fazed them even less….

Creedence Clearwater Revival can do an album in three months and fill it with excellent material. Simon & Garfunkel take two years—and reveal that they have nearly wasted their time….

Only six of the album's cuts are new. Thus, it is quite similar to their last...

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Peter Reilly

The title song [of Bridge Over Troubled Water] has already become something of a miniclassic, along the lines of the duo's earlier Mrs. Robinson and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, and it reflects beautifully the gentle essence of their art. The lyrics are moving without being maudlin, and the tune itself has a classic purity that makes it both memorable and distinctive. This track alone makes the album worth having, but it is not the only triumph. Cecilia, Bye Bye Love, and Baby Driver are all superior songs that stand on their own as really good material faultlessly performed. The subtlety of composition, mood, and delivery that Simon and Garfunkel can put into their work never...

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Michael Watts

Critics of Simon and Garfunkel … have complained not of eclecticism but of an academic feel that their music has had; as if care and attention has gone into the structure of the songs to the detriment of heart. Simon believes that at times this has been a valid criticism, that occasionally they have done a song so cleanly that it's distracted; that the performance has made it appear there was a lack of feeling, even though this was not the case when the song was written. (p. 15)

For reasons of personal artistic stature, ["Bridge Over Troubled Water"] is probably the most significant song [Simon] has ever written.

In another way, though, an earlier song, "Mrs Robinson," has great...

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Richard Williams

For the first time, I believe, Simon reveals himself [on "Paul Simon"] as more than a writer of unfinished lyrics and ordinary melodies. Both commodities are occasionally in evidence here, but they're overwhelmed by the impression that here is a real musician, a real writer, who is flowering at last, and beginning to justify all the album sales and the praise previously heaped on his balding pate.

The care which Simon has lavished on the reggae track ["Mother And Child Reunion"] is typical of the whole album….

[There's] no doubt that it's his album all the way, suffused with his own engaging personality. No one who can play rolling guitar fills like those on "Peace" or enunciates...

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Jon Landau

Paul Simon's long and manicky struggle between his songs of endearing but forced whimsy and his confessions of unhappiness and loneliness is over, with the latter, in fully-developed form, the victor. Simon's first solo album [Paul Simon] is also his least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far—this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme….

Simon maintains his artistic distance as he evinces a continuing commitment to art as something at least one step removed from the artist. Simon's music, rather than abounding in blatant and obvious attempts at expressing the soul, serves as a continually ironic counterpoint to the emotions, ideas,...

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Harold F. Mosher, Jr.

Perhaps the most convincing way to demonstrate that the best of rock lyrics are effective poetry is to show how skillfully certain techniques are used to develop themes which these techniques are organically suited to treat. The relatively more objective poems employ drama, irony, implication, and ambiguity to treat the theme of daily restriction, whereas the more subjective songs present their worlds solipsistically and surrealistically to develop the themes of non-conformity and independent thinking. Both types often rely on setting to reveal states of mind.

To illustrate these trends in popular music, I have chosen the hybrid genre of folk-rock as performed by Paul Simon because the lyrics found...

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Stephen Holden

[Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits] is a greatest hits album that lives up to its name….

I'm a little sorry that the cuts on this collection aren't arranged in chronological order so that we could trace directly Paul Simon's development as a songwriter. Unlike Dylan, who executed a series of dramatic stylistic changes, Simon's evolution has been subtle, but in the long run almost as significant. Though the distance he has traveled is far more apparent on his solo album than it is here, it is still very evident after close listening. Compare, for instance, "The Sounds of Silence" and "I Am a Rock," with "America" and "The Boxer." The difference represents a triumphant movement away from...

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Stephen Holden

There Goes Rhymin' Simon is the logical second step in Paul Simon's solo recording career, and it is a dazzlingly surefooted one. Despite its many light, humorous moments, the core theme of his first album, Paul Simon, was depressing: fear of death, its focal point a sung poem, "Everything Put Together Falls Apart," that while worthy of comparison with the best work of John Berryman, could hardly be called "easy listening." Since the album dealt with anxiety, it communicated anxiety and was difficult in places to accept as entertainment. This isn't true of Rhymin' Simon. Like its predecessor, it is a fully realized work of art, of genius in fact, but one that is also endlessly listenable on every...

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Mike Jahn

["The Sounds of Silence"] is not one of Simon's best, being a bit laden with heavy images. And the theme—man's inability to communicate with man—is hardly virgin territory. Yet for a million-selling single in 1965 it was spectacular, curiously similar to [The Byrds's] "Mr. Tambourine Man" as a bearer of impressionistic images strongly expressed. Within a few years, Simon and Garfunkel became one of the most popular ensembles in the world, and Paul Simon was considered a ranking composer of songs and lyrics of high caliber. (p. 168)

Hardly the stuff of which a pop hit is made, ["The Dangling Conversation"] represents songwriter Simon at a particularly pretentious point, dangling his English Lit...

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Nik Cohn

Still Crazy After All These Years [is] a most ironic title. For Simon is not crazy in the slightest, never has been, and on the current album, he sounds more restrained than ever.

By and large, the themes tend toward gloom, filled with images of passing time, missed connections, waste. But the despair is always contained; never loses its wryness. Instead, it rolls out like a newly scrubbed carpet, unrumpled, spotless, and from first to last, Simon does not raise his voice, avoids the slightest hint of any intemperance.

For myself, I must say, the results chill me to the bone. From Sounds of Silence onwards, Simon's music has always had the same effect on me, like an...

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Paul Nelson

Although his aim may be higher, Paul Simon has always been more a wistful classicist than an adventurous romantic…. ven the fools don't act foolish in his songs, for such gratuitous and unchic behavior simply cannot be permitted in a closed off society where class and proper emotional manners are rated more favorably than quixotic clownishness and primal risk taking. Why should a fool be just a fool when he can be elevated to the loftier and more poetic status of victim? What's wrong with The Graduate anyway? Up there, there is almost no chance of being misunderstood or disliked, and everyone takes you seriously.

Still Crazy after All These Years, Simon's grim and ambitious new album,...

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Bruce Pollock

While Bob Dylan stands as the central figure, the one who woke this sleeping giant of a generation determined not to go silent, none of the other poet laureates of the era addressed himself to all of us middle-class cowboys as directly as Paul Simon….

From "Homeward Bound" to "Dangling Conversations" to "Mrs. Robinson," Simon's songs mirrored the alienation, malaise, and despair of the era, but did so melodiously, with a good beat, so you could dance to them. (p. 43)

Combining further study with a less frenetic performing pace, he's produced three fine albums—Paul Simon (1971), There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973), and Still Crazy After All These Years...

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Janet Maslin

Paul Simon and Randy Newman are virtually alone among singer/songwriters in their capacity for accompanying highly polished lyrics with music of comparable sophistication. Simon has arrived at this balance by gradually simplifying his lyrics while turning out more and more complex (though never ostentatiously so) melodies, rhymes and internal contradictions. More so than any of his competitors, Simon has learned to use his music as an ironic commentary on lyrics that are sometimes even more elusive than Newman's. (pp. 316, 318)

"Overs" injected Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 Bookends album with an unexpected bitterness, an honesty of the sort that Simon's pretensions had not previously...

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Colin Irwin

Paul Simon has developed into possibly the most perfect craftsman of songs on this planet. Even the later Simon and Garfunkel material included its share of dross, but though hardly prolific with his output, his subsequent solo career has been (artistically) virtually faultless….

A Greatest Hits compilation [like Simon's "Greatest Hits, Etc."] is pretty much guaranteed good value, and whatever combination of his solo work you come up with would make an outstandingly strong collection….

The biggest problem in such a compilation is in getting a representative balance, but though there are surprising omissions (notably "Gone At Last" and "My Little Town") it's a choice that will...

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["The Sounds of Silence"] was steeped in existential solitude….

The elaborations [on the alienation theme] were offered through "I Am A Rock," and "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," and "Blessed," lifting an angry cry of "Oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?" Thrust up as voices of a New Generation, [Simon and Garfunkel] might have pursued this spartan fatalism had not the somber kaleidoscope beauty of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme shifted their emphasis into realms less tied to the psyche. From himself, Simon turned to others, taking his cue not so much from archetype as from individuals. He broadened the base of his images, and in such outings as "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling...

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Joel Vance

Once in a very great while, a "greatest hits" package actually does represent a performer's artistic peaks as a performer, and that is the case [with Greatest Hits, Etc.]…. [In his maturity, Paul Simon] has honed his writing to come up with highly interesting although often unresolved vignettes and character portraits of losers, Candides, and ambivalent heroes….

Most of the [songs] in this collection—including his current single, Slip Slidin' Away, about the futility of effort—deal with people who try too hard, have stopped trying, or are rewarded without trying at all. These ways of the world apparently fascinate and vex him at the same time, producing the artistic tension that...

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Tom Carson

Paul Simon's movie One-Trick Pony is apparently going to go on being long-awaited for another couple of months yet, so we can't have any idea of what he'll be like on the screen. But on the soundtrack album, his music does a first-rate job of acting…. [The] material here, in both the writing and the performance, isn't credible for a second as the sort of stuff a journeyman rocker could or would actually play. What Simon gives us instead is his very stylized and elegant translation of what that music and that life might mean.

Such an abstract treatment makes perfect sense for Simon. He's always approached rock and roll's forms and feelings with a cast of mind that, for all the respect and...

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Stephen Holden

Paul Simon's One-Trick Pony is a morose little art film about a minor Sixties pop star, Jonah Levin, who blows his only chance for a comeback by refusing to let a hack producer … "commercialize" him…. This moody, downbeat film is part road movie and part tribute to the Woody Allen school of Manhattan angst. Yet at its center is a question that Allen wouldn't dream of asking: Is the pop life just for kids? (p. 54)

One-Trick Pony's soundtrack album explains exactly what Jonah Levin-Paul Simon does, and its ten songs carefully weight the pros and cons of taking rock & roll seriously when one's well on the way to middle age. But Simon offers no definite conclusions…....

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