In 2016, in a column on Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker, for Hindustan Times (a sister publication of Mint), I had speculated rather darkly on whether Cohen’s 14th studio recording could be his last. Two days after that column was published, Cohen died. I felt terrible.
He had lived a full life, however, and by the time he died, aged 82, the Canadian poet and singer-songwriter was universally known, revered and acclaimed as one of the world’s most influential yet enigmatic writers and singers, with a stature that many compare with Bob Dylan’s.
Earlier that year, David Bowie had died at the age of 69, just days after his last studio album, Blackstar, was released. In Cohen’s case, You Want It Darker became a farewell album, one with an immediacy that was uncanny.
This year has brought happy tidings, with the legendary Paul Simon releasing his 15th studio album, Seven Psalms, on 19 May. Simon, 81, had announced his retirement from live performances in 2018. In interviews to mark the release of Seven Psalms, Simon said the concept of the album came to him in a series of dreams from 2019. He said he would wake up in the very early hours a few times a week and write the lyrics, as if guided by his dreams.
Seven Psalms, a 33-minute suite of seven compositions, is a beautiful piece of work that reflects on faith and belief, life and mortality. Simon’s earlier work has mostly been that of an urban poet, his music style a mix of folk, rock and world music. Musically, Seven Psalms is one of his sparest, comparable to his very early solo work. On most parts of the seven-part suite, Simon is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and little else. On some, he has his wife, the singer Edie Brickell, providing additional vocals, and on some, a British backing choir too.
Simon’s lyrics, on his solo projects as well as those with Art Garfunkel, have always been poetic, dealing with the introspective aspects of love and despair, unions and break-ups, and darker themes like depression and angst.
Yet, even when he dealt with not-so-happy emotions in his early and most-known works, his songs could be fun. In The Sounds Of Silence, off Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (1964), a song that proved to be an introduction to his songwriting for many, he seemed to be writing about depression (“Hello, Darkness, my old friend…”) but so tenderly and joyfully that when you heard it for the first time, it became an earworm. In Cecilia, from 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, an entreaty to a departed lover, the peppiness is infectious.
Seven Psalms, however, is unlike anything Simon has created in his career of more than 60 years. To begin with, the seven songs (or “psalms”) have been released as one continuous track (so you can’t shuffle them) that has to be heard in full. Then there is the theme. Despite the hymnal title of the album and its unambiguous theme of faith and belief, it is not religious. Simon confronts his own inner questions about faith and God. Unsurprisingly, death features constantly in the album, as does the past in an unmistakably autobiographical manner.
His inner questions deal with the eternal issue of “Who or what is God?” Is he the purveyor of good and happy things or of the bad and terrible ones? “The Lord is my engineer/ The Lord is the earth I ran on,” sings Simon in a voice that sounds remarkably unshredded and fresh for his age, a testimony perhaps to his relatively healthy lifestyle. But then, not much later, he sings: “The covid virus is The Lord/ The Lord is the ocean rising/ The Lord is a terrible swift song…”
Spirituality has often been a part of Simon’s songs but not in quite the way he has showcased it in Seven Psalms. On it, the spiritualism is arresting and revelatory. The music makes it uncanny and surreal too.
During his solo (post-Garfunkel) career, Simon became musically adventurous, delving into African rhythm, Latino, reggae and other world music genres. On Seven Psalms, though, it is the quietude that stands out, with its meditative introspection and subtle instrumental arrangements.
Wit and humour intersperse the reflective mood too. In one instance, Simon sings about two cows: “I heard two cows in a conversation/ One called the other one a name/ In my professional opinion/ All cows in the country must bear the blame.” Is it about discrimination and ethnic animosity? Is it about inequality in society? Interpret it the way you want.
Simon’s storied oeuvre includes songs and albums with Garfunkel that have appealed to people of all ages all over the world, as well as solo albums that have adopted and adapted musical styles from all over the world and made him an icon of folk, pop and rock music. But on Seven Psalms, Simon is thinking about mortality and death. In interviews to mark its release, he has talked about growing old, and, more specifically, about losing hearing in one ear, the reason he decided to stop performing. He has also been afflicted by nasty bouts of covid-19 in recent months.
But fans will hope that after the quiet intimacy of Seven Psalms, which comes five years after his previous solo album, he will continue to write and record.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.