Paul Simon has always been ahead of his critics and peers in many ways.
Given his propensity to always push his music forward in new and different directions, In the Blue Light comes as an interesting coda to one of the most respected bodies of work in contemporary popular song. Rather than adding to an already legendary catalog, here Paul Simon elects to revisit and reinterpret a handful of tracks from his previous releases he felt were perhaps unjustly overlooked. Simon’s 21st century output, particularly his last two releases, has found him embracing modern sounds in a manner rarely seen (let alone done without coming off as a tragic attempt to remain relevant) in those of his generation still slogging away more than half a century in. Indeed, his closest compatriot in this regard is the other well-known Paul who also happened to release an album of all new material around the same time.
Released in the midst of his farewell tour, In the Blue Light is at once a career retrospective in terms of Simon’s revisiting previously-released material and career reassessment, allowing for long overlooked tracks to be reassessed one last time before Simon ostensibly retires from music. Of all his albums, it seems 2000’s You’re the One is the one Simon most wants people to reevaluate. No less than four tracks from that album show up, accounting for nearly half the album’s content. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s kept tabs on Simon lately as he talked at length about the album in Robert Hilburn’s recent biography, Paul Simon: The Life. In the wake of the Songs from The Capeman fiasco (another project Simon insists on people revisiting), You’re the One was simply too little too late for all but the most die-hard Simon fans, his goodwill having been squandered through a widespread misunderstanding of The Capeman’s narrative.
Never one to sit still, Simon has long rewritten and revised within a live setting, calling for almost daily rehearsals throughout tours in order to explore new and different ideas and directions for existing material. In essence, In the Blue Light is simply a studio recording of this re-creative process, all songs dramatically reimagined. “Can’t Run But” from 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints is one of the most radically divergent as it eschews that album’s affinity for world music and a percussion-heavy underpinning for a frenetic, nervy bit of chamber music. Indeed, it’s a far cry from the mallet-driven original, opening up a chaotic, claustrophobic – and decidedly unsettling – read of the song. As it builds to its merciful conclusion, the listen is left feeling exhausted and ill-at-ease – no mean feat for a track that clocks in at just under three-and-a-half minutes.
It’s quickly followed by a balladic, jazz-heavy rendition of “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns” that finds Simon doing his best straight-faced, irony-free piano bar croon with stunningly gorgeous results (thanks in large part to Wynton Marsalis’ haunting solo). Coming as it does on the heels of “Can’t Run But” this drastic stylistic shift can’t help but feel a bit jarring. But that seems to be the point as Simon jumps around both chronologically and stylistically throughout In the Blue Light. For instance, the album opens with a pleasant take on “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor” from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon that slows the tempo somewhat, moves the piano up an octave and takes the original’s bluesy swagger to the extreme, adding a live, gritty feel not present in the polished original. Left largely intact, it’s a gentle introduction into the subsequent funhouse mirror approach Simon and company bring to the remainder of the album.
Not everything is so striking, however. “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” sounds as though it were penned by both Simon and Randy Newman, the former affecting the marble-mouthed vocals of the latter amidst a Dixieland jazz shuffle. Much like Newman’s Dark Matter, the track plays out almost as a musical production, the actors coming and going through the narrative. “Darling Lorraine” takes this to the next level, elevating the track well beyond that of its original recording on You’re the One, stretching an already lengthy (for Simon) track just that much more. It’s a Cheever-esque suburban drama in miniature, the lyrics alluding to Simon’s own relationship troubles while adopting a fictionalized voice throughout.
Listening to In the Blue Light, one can hear the circuitous influence of Simon on modern bands like Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, et. al. and vice versa, the music afforded a luscious amount of space, highly melodic and instrumentally intricate arrangements. In essence, In the Blue Light is an album of chamber music using somewhat familiar songs as its source material, transforming them into something both new and timeless. Only the very best songwriters manage to transcend musical arrangements, fads and the passage of time to create a body of work that stands completely on its own, untethered to a particular moment in time or specific recording. Case in point, “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War,” a song that, in its original context on Hearts and Bones defied its ‘80s trappings. Here, it becomes something even more quietly nuanced and timeless.
Paul Simon has always been ahead of his critics and peers in many ways – from his early forays into world music and compulsive need to keep pushing himself musically and creatively. Perhaps this is just the latest instance of him knowing better and gently reminding listeners of what they might have missed along the way before he shuffles off the public stage for the final time.