THERE ARE THREE Paul Simons, give or take. The first is the songwriting half of Simon and Garfunkel, an astoundingly accessible folk-pop duo that recorded some truly wonderful music during the second half of the 1960s, and who were responsible for, at one point, the best-selling album of all time (1970's Bridge Over Troubled Water). The second is the butter-smooth, butterfly-collared balladeer behind such slinky, mom-friendly '70s jams as "Still Crazy After All These Years" and "Slip Slidin' Away." And the third is the world music ambassador who brought South African sounds to the masses with 1986's Graceland and continues to mine various folk and regional musics for sonic twists on his cerebral pop songwriting.
Like the rest of you, I hold the most affection for that first Paul Simon. Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits was one of the few non-classical-music CDs in my house growing up, and naturally, I was put off at first by the profoundly dorky photograph on its cover. There's Simon, with disastrous Woody Allen-circa-Sleeper hair, a furry caterpillar of a mustache, and a taxi-hack flat cap, clutching what looks like a pantyhose egg (it is, I think, actually part of an iron fence). And behind him is Garfunkel, whose wispy angelic hair is the color of freshly budded dandelions, to match the wispy angelic dandelion hue of his high-tenor harmonies. These were not two men you wanted to get in a van with. To make matters worse, the album's title was emblazoned in an off-putting baby-pink.
But once I heard the actual music, I was thoroughly hooked. "The Sound of Silence," "I Am a Rock," and "Cecilia" are filled with melodic turns of phrase that remain irresistible at any age, and the cannonball echo on the drums of "The Boxer" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" suggested a widescreen scope to pop music I'd never before encountered. As I later learned from friends who'd similarly listened to Simon and Garfunkel during childhood, the collegiate, urbane cool of Simon's songs proved irresistible to a certain type of bookish, moony, rainy-day-weather child. And the ostensibly highbrow literary bent to his lyrics was appealingly aspirational to an impressionable mind—he'd use words like "diffused" and "crinoline"; he'd sing about grown-up things like "the whores on Seventh Avenue"; he'd use non-rhyming couplets in a song like "America" to replicate the vividness of a short story.
The second Paul Simon, the silky singer/songwriter, is the one that a particular friend of mine can't see past—he equates Simon with the likes of easy-listening antichrist James Taylor. I can understand the confusion (in fact, Taylor's Greatest Hits was another of those rare non-classical discs in my parents' collection), but there's a fundamental layer of musical complexity to Simon's work that differentiates him. In other words, the schoolyard shuffle of "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and the martial cadences of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" are invigoratingly creative; the clammy-hands ick-fest of "Shower the People" and the boomers-on-vacation haze of "Mexico" are the sonic equivalent of having a pillow pressed over your face.
The third Paul Simon was, at the time, a remarkable reinvention for a career that seemed on the cusp of waning relevance. With Graceland, Simon joined a small enclave of white men—David Byrne and Peter Gabriel among them—who'd begun to use the textures of African, South American, and Asian music to buttress their Anglo pop songs, to great acclaim. It seemed like an entirely new phase for Simon at the time, but the truth is that he'd been incorporating all types of music from all kinds of places since the very beginning.
His earliest influences, deeply rooted in New York doo-wop vocalizing, can still be felt on every one of his records, from the pre-Simon and Garfunkel singles he released under pseudonyms like Jerry Landis, or Tico and the Triumphs, to his upcoming album Stranger to Stranger. During a stay in England in 1965, Simon studied finger-style picking under British folk masters Davey Graham and Bert Jansch, lessons that would inform his complex guitar accompaniments for years to come. Simon even tried his hand at Jamaican ska relatively early—clumsily, at first, on 1970's chunky "Why Don't You Write Me?" and then more fluidly on 1972's "Mother and Child Reunion." And there's the Andean folk music heard on "El Condor Pasa" and "Duncan"; the elements of gospel and Dixieland jazz that characterize 1973's There Goes Rhymin' Simon; and the Mozambique parade rhythm that fuels 1980's "Late in the Evening."
Simon has been, depending on your point of view, either a crafty imitator or an apt pupil of American and international sounds since the very beginning. Yet with Graceland and 1990's Brazilian-influenced The Rhythm of the Saints, the "world music innovator" tag made sense at the time, and it stuck.
This third Simon, however, was no stranger to controversy. Much-publicized dismay accompanied Graceland's release, with accusations that Simon was a wealthy Western carpetbagger taking advantage of South African performers and ignoring the cultural boycotts in place during the apartheid period of the '80s. Actually, the biggest condemnation of Simon from this period has come from American musicians—specifically, Los Lobos, whose saxophonist Steve Berlin (a Portland resident) accused Simon of using the band's self-composed backing track for the Graceland track "All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints," but refused to give them proper songwriting credit or the appropriate royalties.
Past songwriting quarrels aside, Stranger to Stranger—which comes out June 3—falls decidedly into this third category of Paul Simon. The primary musical touchpoints, this time, stem from two wildly different places: the flamenco music of Spain, characterized by its percussive hand-clapping and heel stomping; and the microtonal music of composer Harry Partsch, who invented new instruments to play the in-between intervals of his self-devised 43-tone octave (a standard Western octave contains a mere 12 notes, or intervals). It's a peculiar and prickly album for Simon, with acerbic old-man lyrics ("Wristband" in particular is a fun little grouchfest) and dork-dad postcard musings ("In a Parade"). The worst song, the mostly muttered "Street Angel," should've been its best—it's a stew of gospel vocal samples alongside a beat provided by a Sardinian dance DJ, but the results are weirdly congested.
Yet the curiosity contained in Simon's songwriting remains unimpeachably admirable, and his continual growth in surprising musical directions gives him commanding stature in the American pop canon (even as his physical figure remains diminutive). In fact, any carpetbagger accusations ring increasingly false the longer Simon's absorbent catalog stretches into the future. Nearly 60 years after his first recorded song, Simon's lifework has grown to resemble the essence of his hometown, New York City—more a melting pot than magpie nest, with juxtapositions of cultures, sounds, fragrances, and languages at every street corner. If Bruce Springsteen is the patron saint of New Jersey, and Billy Joel holds dominion over Long Island, Paul Simon is the emissary of a different section of the Tri-State area. His world depicts the taxicab radios that blast merengue outside of New York's sushi restaurants; the broad boulevards that are home to Manhattan's opulent museums; the outer-borough apartment stoops where Italians harmonized in the '50s and African Americans beatboxed in the '80s; the subway stations where Greenwich Village folkies strummed for spare change and where Chinese master musicians now scrape whatever bucks they can.
There are three Paul Simons, and they all point to these particular places. His songs, then and now, are where people meet and worlds intersect.