Paul Simon: America’s Most Intelligent Songwriter

paul simon songs

Having taken hold of the cultural landscape in the 1960s through his work in Simon & Garfunkel, it’s no secret that singer/songwriter Paul Simon has since become an American institution all his own.

Forging a singular path through the perpetually in-flux inner workings of pop music, Simon has endeared himself as an artist who could be deemed America’s most intelligent songwriter.

The resume’ of Paul Simon speaks for itself. From the indelible pop mastery of “Mrs. Robinson” and “Homeward Bound” to unflinching examinations of the human condition such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “The Sound of Silence,” Simon’s songwriting encompasses the essence of the human condition  – and this is all before the 1970s.

World music has always been a key component in Simon’s work, with 1970’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” serving as a prime early example. His fascination with the rhythms of South African street music would propel the songwriter to a late-career resurgence with 1986’s Graceland, perhaps his best-known work as a solo artist.

As a result of the enormous success of Graceland, the world-influenced sound of the album, along with the straight-ahead folk sound of Simon & Garfunkel in the 1960s, would be those with which Simon would be most regularly associated.

But a significant development came about in the mid-1970s as Simon began to diverge from the acoustic folk stylings upon which he’d first established his name.

In a very general sense, the first two Paul Simon studio LPs could serve as a loose roadmap as to where subsequent Simon and Garfunkel albums after Bridge Over Troubled Water may have gone musically.

The songwriter’s fourth solo LP, 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, found the songsmith truly coming into his own as a solo act. The album embraced a glossy, syrupy production style which stood in stark contrast to his earlier, more folk-centered, acoustic-based output.

Additionally, Simon began to further develop his melodic compositional approach, drawing influence from the work of traditional tin pan alley writers and early jazz musicians.

For the album, Simon spared no expense in assembling a top-notch studio band capable of capturing his vision. This included several session players from the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio band, as well as frequent Simon collaborator, drummer Steve Gadd, who provided the distinctive drum pattern for a second single, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

In the midst of the LP’s concise 35-minute runtime lies one of the most enduring illustrations of Simon’s innate ability to engage casually and directly with the most profound recesses of the human condition, which comes in the form of the album’s seventh cut, “Some Folks Lives Roll Easy.”

The breezy, organ-driven number – featuring horns and strings arranged by Simon himself – makes use of subtle harmonic movement throughout, with a recurring, transitional G#7sus4 chord establishing a discernible sense of harmonic unison that impacts the entire sequence.

But with a masterful awareness of personification, the smooth, jazzy instrumentation gradually ascends to an emotional climax, mirroring the journey of the counterparts of the titular “folks” whose lives seem to “never roll at all.”

In just over three minutes, Simon encapsulates the complexities of class, spirituality, and the chaotic, undiscerning hand of fate.

The musical journey of Paul Simon has traversed an astonishing array of sonic territory, exhibiting an artistic restlessness generally associated with only the most fearlessly creative devotees of the craft – contemporaries Neil Young and Bob Dylan are two other names that come to mind with regard to such a categorization.

Notably, in contrast to the assortment of contemporaries who simply open themselves up to“the muse,” Simon has always considered the most minute of details in his own work. Everything is considered, reconsidered, and reconsidered again, but never feels overthought as a result.

Each element is meticulously arranged, resulting in a gratifying sense of sonic balance not dissimilar to that of the arrangements turned out by one Sir Paul McCartney, whose melodic changes Simon referred to as “just so right” in a 1974 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

As is the case with so many who become successful in a given trade, artists, once established, will often begin to allow public perception of themselves and of their work to inform the subsequent work that they perform.

The inverse appears to be true in the case of Paul Simon who – despite having become one of the world’s most revered songwriters relatively early in life – has always seemed to harbor an innate anxiety regarding the world around him.

The inner workings of the man’s brain never seem to let up on the gas, manifesting ideas to be assembled and reassembled until the end result is just so.

For over six decades the musical voice of Paul Simon has served as the soundtrack to the American experience, encapsulating the joy, humor, pain, and wonder in something as prosaic as everyday life.

The genius of Simon has always been his ability to reveal the profound concealed within the mundane, affording him an endless well from which to spin yarns pertinent to the personal experience of listeners spanning generations.

The awareness, earnestness, and commitment to the craft exhibited throughout Simon’s expansive body of work present a clear case for the musician’s designation as America’s most intelligent songwriter.

-Cameron Gunnoe

Photo: Getty Images

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