For 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon made his version of a traditional singer-songwriter album. Although it isn’t as musically adventurousness as some of his earlier discs, the album features some of Simon’s most cutting lyrics. It also might be his most downbeat album, full of mid-life crises, romantic ennui, dead-end hometowns and baseball fatalities. Still, even though it stagnates a bit on Side Two, it’s another fascinating effort. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “You’re Kind”- This is pretty much a one-joke premise about a guy who can’t stand romantic prosperity and kicks away the best thing he ever had for trivial reasons. (Although I’m with the narrator: I prefer the window open when I sleep.) It’s sort of funny the first time, but it just takes up space after that.
9. “Gone At Last”- While it’s not certain whether the meeting that saves the narrator of this song is of a spiritual or romantic nature, what is clear is that the gospel music within the song, a duet with Phoebe Snow, is a little more pedestrian than praiseworthy.
8. “Night Game”- I think it’s safe to say that Paul didn’t intend it to be taken literally that the hurler bites it in this song, a la Michael Madsen when he crashes through the wall in The Natural. It seems more a symbolic death that haunts this strange but interesting mood piece. The imagery is striking, especially the closing lines: “And the tarpaulin was rolled/Upon the winter frost.”
7. “Have A Good Time”- Since Simon pretty much sat out the late 70’s as a recording artist, he didn’t get drawn into disco. This tongue-in-cheek track is probably as close as he ever came. The lyrics depict a clown who is willing to ignore all reality, both in terms of the problems in his personal life and the issues that plague the world at large, in pursuit of temporary enjoyment. A bit broad, but still clever.
6. “Silent Eyes”- Simon doesn’t get too specific with his observations on Jerusalem, yet his compassion is evident from the power of his vocal. The choir does provide a few moments of solemn beauty, but when you add that to the dramatic piano flourishes, it makes “Silent Eyes” seem just a bit too in-your-face about its intentions as a important with a capital ‘I’ album-closer.
5. “Some Folks Lives Roll Easy”- Like many Simon songs, this one starts without a lot of fanfare yet surprises you with its potency somewhere along the line. It begins with Paul making generalized observations about the fates of certain people compared to others. Everything seems matter-of-fact until it builds to the singer practically wailing out the closing lines, showing that maybe he’s more affected by it than he lets on. Sneaky good.
4. “I Do It For Your Love”- Propelled by a lovely blend of instruments, Simon’s ruminates unsentimentally on marriage. It seems that if you tie the knot, all you have to look forward to are bad pipes, shared illnesses, and ill-chosen floor decorations. Oh, and you also get “The sting of reason/The splash of tears,” which is when the black comedy doesn’t seem so funny anymore. The song is no pick-me-up, but its honesty is potent.
3. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”- There aren’t too many songs with a drum beat as the hook, but, courtesy of sessionman Steve Gadd’s little martial rumble, this major hit is one of them. I’ve always found that the jokey chorus skews a little too close to novelty-song territory for my taste. Luckily, the somber verses help to atone for it, especially in the way that Simon contrasts those blunt refrains with the exceedingly formal and polite conversation between the narrator and his mistress.
2. “My Little Town”- Welcome back, Artie! This reunion proved that the inimitable chemistry between Simon and Garfunkel hadn’t dulled a bit in their five-year-recording hiatus. It helped that Simon wrote a great song. In typically counterintuitive Simon fashion, he chose this occasion of great nostalgia to write a song that pokes holes all over the idyllic visions one might have of their hometown, painting a picture of an unimaginative, stifling place that leaves the narrator “Twitching like a finger/On the trigger of a gun.” When the duo tear into that piercing refrain (“Nothing but the dead of night back in my little town”), it’s clear they left that old burg behind long ago.
1. “Still Crazy After All These Years”- Whether it was a self-portrait or a character sketch of middle-aged malaise, Simon gets the lyrics, simple and yet telling, just right on the title track. In the last verse, when he admits to worrying about how he’ll handle the future, this seemingly harmless little lament gains a lot more heft. The music is simply brilliant, reflecting the narrator’s plight: The sad yet resigned electric piano of Barry Beckett in the main section, the edgy strings in the bridge, and the resilient sax solo of Mike Brecker, which brings the song to a towering peak.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon’s second solo album after his split with Art Garfunkel, saw him continuing to explore diverse sounds and lyrical themes that veered seamlessly from the playful to the confessional. Yet unlike his self-titled solo debut from the previous year which had music that tended toward the exotic, this album is filled mainly with American tunes, at times upbeat and rollicking, at times wounded and soulful. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Learn How To Fall”- If there is a problem with the album, it’s that certain songs don’t have much of an identity. Besides the dueling guitars of Simon and Jerry Puckett, this one is non-descript musically and full of pat bromides lyrically.
9. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor”- It tries to work up a lather in the middle section, but it all seems a bit busy. The song might have been better off building off the tense piano part played by Barry Beckett that bookends it.
8. “Was A Sunny Day”- The island vibe seems a little out of place with the rest of the more earthbound tracks around it. The episodic nature of the verses anticipates future triumphs like “Slip Sliding Away,” but here, although pleasant, everything is a bit slight.
7. “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”- With an appearance by the Onward Brass Band, lovely vocal help from the Reverend Claude Jeter, and a shout out to Jelly Roll, Simon certainly has the right guests on board and the particulars in place for a tribute to Mardi Gras. His lyrics are smooth, but it’s all a bit subdued for a song about one of the biggest parties on Earth.
6. “St. Judy’s Comet”- It’s a rite of passage for every rock star to write a good-night song for their kids. Simon’s is typically understated and humble, especially the way he frets about how it will look to the world if his powers of songwriting fail to knock his kid out. Musically, it’s a little bit sleepy, but, considering the subject matter, I suppose that’s apropos.
5. “Tenderness”- “There’s no tenderness beneath your honesty,” Simon sings, suggesting that the truth hurts if it’s leveled with disdain. Paul Griffin, a veteran of a million great records, adds some jazzy piano on the periphery, while The Dixie Hummingbirds second Simon’s emotions with fathoms-deep backing vocals.
4. “Love Me Like A Rock”- The two lead singles from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon were big hits, and they still get airplay galore on oldies channels today. They lack, however, the grandeur of the Simon & Garfunkel hits or the ingenuity and pep of the two big hits off Paul Simon. They’re still really enjoyable though. In the case of “Love Me A Rock,” Simon slips into its gospel setting without losing his songwriting voice, creating a buoyant noise with The Dixie Hummingbirds at his side.
3. “Kodachrome”- Again, it’s not the most profound thing in the world, nor Is it dripping with inspiration. But it does have one of the potent and incisive opening couplets in rock (“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all”), a galloping beat that’s impossible to resist, and a refrain that’s meaningful nonsense. The Muscle Shoals magic rubs off on the track as well, right down to the hoedown finish.
2. “Something So Right”- Dreamy keyboards from Bob James and silky strings arranged by Quincy Jones are the perfect trappings to this soulful ballad, but then finding the right accompaniment for his musings has always been one of Simon’s finest qualities as a recording artist. But let’s give credit to the songwriting on this one, as Paul manages to pull off that oh-so difficult task of writing an affecting love song without getting goopy. He achieves this by letting people hear the loneliness and pain from whence his narrator came in the verses, making the redemptive relationship highlighted in the chorus seem like a well-earned triumph.
1. “American Tune”- Simon takes a good look at himself and his countrymen and sees similarities: Yearning, restlessness, wounds that don’t heal but maybe dull a bit with time, probably heading in the wrong direction without knowing just why. “I don’t have a dream that’s not been shattered,” Simon sings in that timeless melody. “Or driven to its knees.” The cinematic middle section is powerful as Paul recounts a vision of the Statue of Liberty sailing away from all those looking to it for comfort. Simon set the bar pretty high in the category of songs about his country with “America,” but “American Tune” meets that standard with flying colors.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this blog, check out the links below.)
When it came out in 1979, it was practically impossible for anyone to separate the musical quality of Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming from the content of the album. It is the LP that heralded Dylan’s so-called “Born Again” period, in which his music often preached to the choir and scolded everyone else. Yet it’s easy to forget Slow Train Coming features one of Bob’s top backing bands ever, giving a soulful spin on his with-us-or-against-us proselytizing. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”- And, lo, the Lord spoke unto Bob and said, “Bring forth plentiful cowbell.” Or something to that effect. The groove is more “Mississippi Queen” than Virgin Mary, but it hasn’t held up that well over time, and Bob’s lyrics are a little too humorless here.
8. “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”- If I’m not mistaken, someone wrote a children’s book based on this song, and that’s the right spirit in which to enjoy it. Think of it as his “Yellow Submarine.” Plus, it’s Bob’s first foray into reggae, and not a bad one at that.
7. “When You Gonna Wake Up”- There is a dichotomy at play between the lyrics, which sometimes come off like they were written by a member of the PMRC, and the music, which gets gritty in the verses and flirts with disco in the chorus. That interesting contrast is all over Slow Train Coming, and part of what makes it a great deal better than its less musically-vibrant follow-up, Saved.
6. “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”- Using the same kind of word games that propelled “Gotta Serve Somebody,” this retelling of the Golden Rule benefits from that subtle playfulness and Dylan’s funky delivery. The music helps a lot here as well, with special kudos to Barry Beckett’s burbling keyboards.
5. “I Believe In You”- The lyrics to this song, which borrows it’s opening phrasing from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” almost seem to anticipate the skepticism which would greet Dylan’s transformation once it was made public. His vocals get exposed in points, but that’s part of the charm. Mark Knopfler, whose work as unofficial bandleader on the album must be commended, provides some lovely fills as well.
4. “When He Returns”- Anyone who might have doubted Dylan’s commitment to his faith need only listen to his impassioned vocal performance on this lovely closing track. Again, Beckett is fantastic here, and the melody allows Bob’s vulnerability to show through. The God awaited here is a bit more benevolent and less vengeful than at other parts of the album, and the narrator’s doubts about his own worthiness and strength also make this one softer somehow, and better for it.
3. “Precious Angel”- Dylan had use of the marvelous Muscle Shoals horns on the record, and they were utilized to perfection here. They soar in the refrains, buoying the narrator heavenward as he beckons divine light. The lyrics are part love song, part devotional, part harrowing prophecy for any non-believers, but all parts are powerfully written by Bob.
2. “Slow Train”- The hardest thing to reconcile about this period of Dylan’s career was his seeming reluctance to allow any opposing views into the picture. That kind of single-minded philosophy is all over this menacing track, yet the lyrics are so persuasive and limber that it’s hard to resist it. Dylan aims here more at societal ills than at the religiously wayward, although his point is that the two walk hand in hand. Regardless of all that, the track is stellar, with a groove that Stevie Wonder would envy and tear-stained licks from Knopfler that burn with emotion.
1. “Gotta Serve Somebody”- This is another song that has an insinuating rhythm that carries it a long way. It’s probably the reason the song was an unlikely chart smash, although Dylan’s slyly humorously lyrics are pretty memorable as well. As the first single from this new Bob that perplexed many fans, the song often gets maligned for being something it really isn’t. Nowhere in the song does Bob come forth and say how people should act or what they should believe. The refrain simply posits that, one way or the other, our actions reveal our character.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
On the good side, it was Bob Dylan’s last Top 40 single (although we can always hold out hope for another) and it won him a Grammy. On the bad side, it kicked off an era that alienated some of his fans and set him up for a bitingly funny parody from John Lennon (payback for “4th Time Around?”) What to make of “Gotta Serve Somebody” some 33 years after all the hubbub?
What I find interesting about the song now is that it doesn’t seem overtly religious, certainly not like the rest of the stuff found on Slow Train. Dylan doesn’t take a stand one way or the other, the devil or the Lord. He’s just saying that everybody, in one way or another, is going to have to answer for their actions.
I was only seven years old at the time of the song’s release, so I can’t say I remember the press surrounding it (although I do remember the “You can call me Ray” beer commercials that Bob briefly quotes.) Anyway, I’m guessing there was a pretty strong headwind kicking up in the press about Dylan’s controversial new direction in his music well before the song was released. In that context, it’s easy to see how everybody would have jumped on “Gotta Serve Somebody” as a Christian song.
Listening to it now, I hear playfulness and subtle cleverness in the lyrics that makes it a fun and interesting listen, not at all the dour lecture that its reputation suggests. The music is minimal, only the backing vocalists rising above the low hum as Barry Beckett’s keyboards grumble alongside of Bob, allowing him to list just about every type of person under the sun, making sure to include himself in a final verse that was meta before people knew what meta was.
In a way, “Gotta Serve Somebody” is one of the most straightforward songs in the Dylan catalog. He’s saying that no one escapes responsibility. Ideally, consequences, good or bad, will accompany actions in this life. If not, Bob insinuates, even if he never states it outright, that the next life will sort things out.
First, let’s talk about the recording, shall we? It has to be some kind of miracle (this was the Born-Again period after all) that this record, released in 1979 when all kinds of musical fads and genres and trends were crossing paths, doesn’t sound at all dated today. Give credit to the production of Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, who helped assemble a sound on this song that seems to be arching ever-skyward, befitting the subject matter. As each element is added on, like the horns and the female backing vocals, Pick Withers’ steady beat keeps everything in its proper place. Mark Knopfler’s guitar licks, meanwhile, are the embodiment of a soul searching for guidance.
Not that that’s out of the way, on to the gist of the song. It understandably rankled people that Dylan appeared to see things so black and white around this time, but even when I disagree with him, as I do in parts of this song, I understand why he took this approach.
This may not be an apt comparison, but I liken it to when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” To truly go forward, he felt he had to cut ties with the past. And I think of Dylan’s Christian period in that same light. He knew he was going to irritate a lot of folks, but a half-hearted foray into these beliefs would have been much harder for listeners to respect. By going at it in this manner, well, you could think he was wrong, but you couldn’t doubt his conviction.
Anyway, it’s also impossible to listen to a song like “Precious Angel” and not hear that conviction. Whether you believe in it or not, you have to appreciate the eloquence and power with which Bob promotes his message. Saying there’s no “neutral ground” and damning everybody on the other side of the ledger may not be a rational way of thinking. But faith isn’t supposed to be rational; otherwise everybody would have it.
When I hear “Precious Angel,” my focus is on the gratitude in Bob’s voice in the first few lines and the vulnerability of it in the chorus when he asks this angel to “shine your light on me.” Theological arguments aside, it moves me, a (full disclosure) Catholic who, while accepting of all faiths, personally believes in God and Jesus even while often frustrated with the actions of the Catholic Church and anyone else who uses Catholicism, or any religion for that matter, to promote intolerance for those who don’t share their beliefs.
Whatever my beliefs or anybody else’s, being moved by music is ultimately the standard which we should desire every time we listen. “Precious Angel”, flawed in places and aggravating in others, ultimately meets that standard.
One thing that is often overlooked when considering Dylan’s Christian period is how small his margin for error was. With songs of that type, he had to be sure that he didn’t come off as too hectoring, thereby sacrificing the quality of the song in favor of the message of his sermon. By contrast, the message had to be strong, or else he would have been seen as wavering. What would be the point of going out on that limb if he didn’t make his point while he was out there?
There are critics to be found who feel that Dylan erred on both sides of that dividing line during that time period. But I think that he found a unique way around the problem on “When He Returns.” While there can be no doubting Dylan’s born-again qualifications based on the pointed lyrics, his singing, in conjunction with the musical accompaniment, presents a picture of tenderness and vulnerability that leavens things considerably.
The anguish in Dylan’s voice is palpable, which presents an effective counterpoint to the blunt-force lyrics. Since that is the case, lines like “The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God,” so unapologetic on the page, are tempered by the softer touch of the presentation. Bob also makes sure to include himself in the blame game, mixing in a few “I”‘s with the “you”‘s when he talks about those who on a wayward path in need of heavenly guidance.
Give credit to the lovely piano work of Barry Beckett, who sets the tone with his gentle chords. And, of course, give credit to Dylan’s marvelous vocal, one of the most nakedly emotional of his career. Listening to that voice, it’s easy to believe that he believed. With material as delicate as”When He Returns,” such commitment to those beliefs ultimately makes the difference in getting it across.