Tom Carson

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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 genuine affection involved, is finally analytical. His imagination is nourished most by how much he can do with music's raw materials, even as his vocal style turns rock's yardstick for effectiveness upside down: his singing is an attempt to discover how much emotion a basicallly inexpressive voice can create through technical expertise…. Yet it's not enough to call him a superb craftsman, because of his insistent sense—the one point where he joins the rock tradition, and leaves behind the Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths who are his real masters—that craft raised high and pure enough is art.

It's no surprise, then, that One-Trick Pony turns out to be a celebration of the quiet hard worker as rock and roll's forgotten hero, and of craftsmanship as the tortoise-path to immortality….

[Most of the] songs are designed to mimic the moods of life on the road—landscapes seen from a moving bus, one-night stands that look like love until dawn, vague wonderings about when music started feeling like a job. Simon is an expert at such musical snapshots; he evokes the life's wearing, stop-and-start pulse with one of his favorite devices, slowing down or speeding up the tempo by fractions with voices or discreet percussion slipping in and out of the main beat, in a kind of subliminal polyrhythm….

The album's one insoluble problem, musically even more than lyrically, is that the narrative increasingly demands one dying fall after another. The great exception is "Late in the Evening," an exuberant capsule history of music in the singer's life, starting with earliest childhood and ending—naturally—with true love, that's one of Simon's instant radio classics. It's overlaid with so many shifting layers of salsafied percussion and perky rhythm that it's a discovery when you realize it's a blues…. It's the album's most stylized track, and also the most convincing. As to the rest, the most likely explanation is the next song, a breezy little cocktail-lounge shuffle about how all the best romantic gestures are hopelessly secondhand, called "That's Why God Made the Movies." A rock and roll album this isn't. But as an album about how one person feels about rock and roll, it says as much by its distance as it does in closeup.

Tom Carson, "Paul Simon: Outside Looking In" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 36, September 3, 1980, p. 53.

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