I remember the day my mother came home with a CD player. A friend had said that Sears was having a sale and so she went and picked one up. A pretty decent one, too, but it wouldn’t play music. That’s because she’d got one designed to plug into a component system. So, we had to go out and buy and actual stereo and, as it turned out, a few CDs to boot. I was about ten.
One of the very first of those little silver discs I ever listened to of my own accord was Graceland by Paul Simon. My parents listened to lots of music, but nearly always on the radio or mixes recorded inexpertly onto cassette tapes. The CD player brought, for the first time, the concept of an album — a sustained and discrete expression of artistic vision — into my life. I didn’t pick it up quickly, and to this day cherry pick my favourites onto playlists, but I did start thinking about it.
Graceland and, later, Rhythm of the Saints became friends. I love now as I did then the flow of their songs into sound stories that gathered meaning for me each time I played them. It also inspired me to get to know Simon’s work better and especially his partnership with Art Garfunkel. These guys really became part of my teenaged world and I have happily harmonised till many dawns with most of their catalogue.
It seemed fitting, therefore, that the first LP I would buy for this new listening approach would be by Paul Simon. I chose the two disc The Ultimate Collection compilation because it was on sale and has a good mix of his material that he preformed with Garfunkel.
There’s nothing new or ground breaking here. There are 18 tracks and you can probably already sing at least 10 of them and have heard about 15 of them enough times to be recognisable. They’re mixed and matched, though, and the sides each come together to tell their own story.
Take the first side, for example: ‘You Can Call Me Al’, ‘Graceland’, ‘Mrs Robinson’, and ‘The Boxer’. Arguably the four most iconic songs written by Simon, I had nevertheless not listened to them in this grouping before. Introvert anthems all, these four tracks chart a journey Simon has taken through inner space and the various relationships with which he connected along the way. There’s hope and optimism mixed in, too, but you can’t get away from the pangs.
I would never say that I have an all time favourite track. There’s just too much music out there for me to ever know how to make that decision. Still, one that would be in the running is ‘America’. A simple three stanza poem about the aimless journeying of youth and what it’s like coming to terms with forging your own identity stanza, I’ve always found this beguiling. There’s vulnerability to it, as well, that I think cuts through the very masculine vibe that S&G often give off. It made me happy to see this included along side much bigger numbers.
Glad to have this. It’s got good balance. And it’s interesting to hear Simon’s voice remain rock solid through the years, even as his writing and thinking have changed wildly.