When you have a back catalogue that’s as deep and varied as Paul Simon’s it makes sense to revisit some of your favourites once in a while. That’s what Simon has done with his latest and 14th solo album co-produced with Roy Hallee, the man who captured the sound on the original Simon and Garfunkel albums. Simon has picked some top notch people to play on the album with Bryce Dessner of the National (who must be the most prolific musician in American music today), trumpet player Wynton Marsalis and guitarist Bill Frisell among them. Strings and woodwind are provided by yMusic who bring real tonal depth to the recordings. In fact the quality of instrument timbre is a major strength throughout the ten songs that Simon and Hallee rearranged for this album.
The tracks appear to have been chosen on the basis that they warrant more attention than they originally got, the story goes that The Sound of Silence was among the numbers covered but sadly perhaps it didn’t make the final cut. Those that did consist of tracks from albums as disparate as There Goes Rhymin’ Simon from 1973 up to 2011’s So Beautiful or So What. The opener, One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor, is a typical example of Simon’s impressive ability to tell a vivid story in a few words, this time using the ups and downs of apartment living as an allegory for life in general. The music is a piano led blues that introduces the plush but clean and open sound of the album, just as no expense appears to have been spared on the guest artists Simon has got the production values he deserves.
Love is the answer to life’s big questions in the gentle song of the same title but things get more lively on Can’t Run But where the strings and woodwind take on an almost baroque feel while Simon paints another diverting story. It’s one of the musical highlights of the album and contrasts with the piano trio backing of How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns where Simon taps his inner crooner to deliver beautiful lines including “Wondering as the television burns”. Pigs, Sheep and Wolves starts off as New Orleans jazz and almost turns into Oh Brother Where Art Thou thanks to its rambling back country theme. The best known tune on here is René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War, a suitably abstract song over a beautiful combination of guitar, oboe and strings that underpin a melody which could have come from Lennon and McCartney.
The guitars on The Teacher sound glorious, one presumably played by Bill Frisell in his mellow style, this works remarkably well with the saxophone breaks that split up the song. Like most of the tunes here this produces a very strong sonic ‘image’ with lots of scale and depth, it’s a classy production no doubt. Acoustic guitar features strongly on the most recent song Questions for Angels, which refers to a pilgrim passing a billboard with Jay Z advertising clothes. A seemingly random observation that like many of Simon’s songs gives it a grounding to reality that makes everything interesting. Blue Light gives us a different vantage point from which to appreciate this man’s considerable skills, it may not be his finest work but it’s definitely worth hearing.