Paul Simon Joel Vance - Essay

Joel Vance

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 can result in works of superior craftsmanship. But the lyrics' specific meanings are not always clear, and the actions of the characters are not always fully explained. Perhaps this harks back to the intellectual poets of Simon's youth (he is thirty-six), who were deliberately vague. Like them, I suspect, Simon is a frustrated romantic who feels out of place in a world that has long ceased to appreciate or support poets in general and romantics in particular. And, as poets have grown increasingly unsure of their audience, Simon—and others like him who would have been published poets had they not turned to pop music as a vehicle—find themselves in the baffling position of being enormous artistic and commercial successes without ever being sure that their large audiences understand them at all. This tends to make closet romantics bolt the door from the inside. Paul Simon doesn't bolt the closet door—he swings it open to peep out once in awhile—but, Lord, it must be lonely in there.

Joel Vance, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'Greatest Hits, Etc.'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1978 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 40, No. 3, March, 1978, p. 120.