What an earnest and downbeat fellow the young Paul Simon was. When he wasn’t overstating the weather (the drizzle of the rain, the wind that is both “chilly” and “cold”), he was bemoaning the passage of time (he was 24) and almost glorying in a misunderstood isolation, a precious elevation of his own masochistic locked-upness.
And wasn’t he good at it? Songs like “I Am A Rock” and “Sounds Of Silence” remain simultaneously ridiculous and magnificent. When he murmurs in that weary, calmly melancholy way of his, he sounds like nothing less than the proverbial prophet quietly writing on the subway walls. But when he raises his voice to match the righteous hyperbole of his text-which he does here and there on this album, usually on the word “free”?the spell is broken, and he just sounds like a short guy trying to be a tall guy.
And he knew it; his heart just isn’t in some of this stuff he was peddling around the folk clubs of England in 1964/65. As he sings in the conspicuously self-knowing “Kathy’s Song”, “I don’t know why I spend my time/Writing songs I can’t believe/With words that tear and strain to rhyme.” The anti-racism of “A Church Is Burning” and the anti-war “He Was My Brother” are the worst offenders of that sort of song. Good-hearted, naturally, but strident and uneasy, peripheral to Simon’s art which, at its best, is a delicate flower of wisdom.
Luckily, even as he bashes through his callow poet-and-a-one-man-band set, there’s plenty of that already in place. “Leaves That Are Green” contains a simple, heart-stopping summation of universal transience (“hello” sung four times, then “goodbye” four times). “April Come She Will” sustains its conceit (passing spring and summer months as fickle lovers) with modest brilliance. “The Side Of A Hill” (unrecorded elsewhere, though its theme would reappear as “Scarborough Fair”‘s counter-melody) is an anti-war song rather more worthy of this most serenely astute writer.
Simon has kept this album under Kubrick-like wraps for years, as if embarrassed. No need. A most peculiar young man for sure, but a fascinating one.