As a duo, Paul Simon and his long-time partner in crime Art Garfunkel released five albums, and as the sixties progressed and their compositions became more ambitious, the duo’s popularity increased exponentially. Their fifth and final studio album together, Bridge Over Troubled Water, turned out to be a watershed album for the music industry, and saw the duo performing their most diverse and experimental melodies to date, incorporating pan-flutes (“El Condor Pasa”), bongos (“Cecilia”) and swelling strings all alongside the duo’s distinctive vocal harmonies. Not surprisingly, the album was highly acclaimed, garnering a multitude of awards, and was the highest selling album of all time until it was later dethroned by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Ironically, behind the scenes, the duo was experiencing trouble of their own. Garfunkel was slowly moving out of the recording studio, and more towards the bright lights of Hollywood, spending a decent amount of time in Mexico filming the movie “Catch-22.” During filming, Simon was left alone in New York writing songs for Bridge. When, the two became fully involved in recording, they subsequently became embroiled in arguments over songs, harmonies, arrangements, and tracking. To most fans, it may have come as a shock for the duo to split up at the height of their fame, however, during the production of Bridge, it became clear that the two gifted musicians were moving towards different and more individual careers.
The fact that Paul Simon’s first solo release post-Simon and Garfunkel was self-titled made it clear that he was ready to break loose from any pre-conceived notions about him as a songwriter and performer. In contrast to his later releases as part of Simon and Garfunkel, most of the tracks on Paul Simon are focused around Simon’s dynamic guitar, and his distinctive and melodic voice. One of the most energetic and uplifting tracks is album opener and lead single “Mother and Child Reunion,” which was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. “Reunion” is one of the more dynamic tracks on the album, and features one of the first instances of reggae music being brought into mainstream pop music. Likewise, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” provides another instance of Simon incorporating various, and at the time, unusual instrumentation into his compositions. “Julio” is a bubbly and downright infectious track, and includes a prominent whistle solo and a bouncy acoustic guitar and bass line that play off of Simon’s socially conscious lyrics. These two songs would be a precursor to the great majority of Simon’s solo work over the next twenty years by incorporating diverse and foreign music into his arrangements, and also by placing percussion at the forefront of many of his more upbeat songs.
However, on Paul Simon, his real strengths come in the form of more laid-back, acoustic guitar driven compositions. As an exceptional poet, Simon paints a vivid picture of a runaway teenager losing his virginity in the woods, comparing the act to a dog being befriended and afterwards, ‘thanking the lord for my fingers’ on the Incan-infused melancholy of “Duncan.” Later, Simon portrays a lonely Detroit worker who ‘sweeps up the tips [he’s] made’ while ‘living on Gatorade’ on the emotional “Papa Hobo.” The bulk of the middle portion of the album are comprised of a series of beautiful acoustic-based tracks, including the minimal “Everything Put Together Falls Apart,” as well as the building “Armistice Day,” where Simon turns political by saying that his congressman is simply “avoiding me” despite his anxious and weary waiting. The middle part of the album is rounded out by “Peace Like A River,” which combines Simon’s acoustic guitar with some flourishes of echo that are reminiscent of the songs found on Bridge. All of these songs are remarkably durable and layered, and give the album an intimate feel that served as an inspiration for the best singer-songwriter albums of the following decade. The tail end of the album finds the material leaning more towards the blues – the short instrumental “Hobo’s Blues” and the wonky, yet delightful “Paranoia Blues” where Simon constantly finds himself being deceived in New York City.
Paul Simon is a brief yet deeply personal collection of acoustic folk songs that also briefly ventures past folk-rock and into other genres through blues reinterpretations and an exercise in reggae. By writing songs meant for a singular voice, Simon’s compositions gained new life and obtained a more personal feel to them, and allowed Simon figuratively spread his wings and create more personal arrangements that would not be overshadowed by too much production gloss or distracting vocal harmonies. Instead, Simon makes strides forward on his own by stripping everything back, focusing on the small details, and creating vivid personal images that end up touching each individual listener in different ways. Many at the time of the album’s release may have feared that performing on his own could have proved to be disastrous; instead, Simon welcomed the challenge and produced one of the most beautifully arranged and musically perfect albums of all time. While it may be remembered for signaling the end of one of the greatest duos of all time, Paul Simon is one of the best albums that he created throughout his long and spectacular career, and presents Simon as a versatile singer-songwriter blessed with a truly remarkable gift.