When Paul Simon holds a mirror up to himself, what does he see? It’s In the Blue Light. His latest album is a retrospective of sorts— it features past songs that have been, in his words, “overlooked”. These deep cuts culled from entire decades’ worth of tunes reemerge from the past, filtered this time through the wisdom he’s gathered over five decades of music.
Paul Simon’s songs have been woven into the fabric of American music history, and the public still keeps up with him through his artistic turns. On his last release Stranger to Stranger, he experimented with electronic music, and still topped the UK Albums Chart in 2016. He’s written countless classics to the gnawing envy of lesser songwriters. However, a lifetime of playing The Sound of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water to hopeful audiences naturally takes its toll on a dynamic talent that constantly wants to reinvent itself.
In the Blue Light was released towards the end of his farewell tour, shortly before his last show in New York on September 22. In a statement released earlier this year, he wrote: “I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to reach the point where I’d consider bringing my performing career to a natural end. Now I know: it feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating, and something of a relief.” It’s an interesting time to survey one’s career and reexamine songs that he may not have been able to play live as often.
The results are often unexpected. “Darling Lorraine”, which he calls ”one of the best songs I ever wrote”, is now more contemporary, with a hint of darkness. “The Teacher” has become a baroque ballad. “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” is turned from a jazzy, lush ballad into a sparse lounge act, both in the same dimly-lit dive. The freewheelin’ narrative of “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” finally goes back home to its roots in New Orleans soul. It’s either he departs from the songs' varied styles, or brings them in a close encounter with their influences.
The prime example of this is the lead single “Can’t Run But”, which serves as a primer for the album. The song leaves its Brazilian melodic percussion behind for an urgently severe string ensemble in the vein of “Eleanor Rigby”. The latter would have been more familiar ground to Paul Simon back in the 1960s when his contemporaries were beginning to push the boundaries of recording magic. Both the old and new are still Paul Simon, in the bigger picture.
In the Blue Light may very well be the antithesis of a greatest hits record, or the artist’s personal list of his greatest hits.
As either one, or both, the album presents an artist and his songwriting at a specific period in his career. It bears a sense of intimacy, now that Paul Simon is positioning himself to retire from touring. It’s also fitting that the album’s title is drawn from the song "How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns", which is about bone-weary travelers and headlights that slide past the moon. Simon has journeyed far and wide, and it’s time for him to come home.