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A musician obsessed

Paul Simon (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen)

A musician obsessed

Paul Simon shows perfectionist streak in new album

Paul Simon has named his new album, In the Blue Light (Legacy), after a line from “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns,” a song from the soundtrack to the dreadful One-Trick Pony, which he wrote and starred in 38 years ago. That the song itself (its title’s dodgy grammar notwithstanding) is not dreadful makes Simon’s decision to re-record it for inclusion on In the Blue Light a welcome one.

The project’s other nine cuts are re-recordings too. What they have in common is that none of them were hits or even singles (unless the B-side statuses of “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor,” “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy,” and “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” count) and that most of them first appeared on Simon albums that generated little buzz even if they sold well.

Of Simon’s 12 studio post-Garfunkel efforts, only two haven’t gone gold or platinum. One of those, Songs from “The Capeman” (1997), was another soundtrack (to his poorly received musical play The Capeman). The other, Hearts and Bones (1983), might just be the strongest album bearing his name. 

On In the Blue Light, Simon bypasses Songs from “The Capeman” altogether (stranding the imminently rescue-worthy “Bernadette” in the process). But from Hearts and Bones he has selected “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” and therein lies a rub: The original was a gem, a hauntingly elegant compression of the complex love story of two complex people striving for intimacy in the age of doo-wop. It’s nice to hear again, but how does one improve on a gem?

Simon tries—and fails—to answer that question, which hovers over the entire album, in the liner notes. “Re-doing arrangements, harmonic structures, and lyrics that didn’t make [the songs’] meaning clear,” he writes, “gave me time to clarify in my own head what I wanted to say, or realize what I was thinking and make it more easily understood.”

Translation: He’s a borderline-neurotic perfectionist. Any other songwriter would’ve been thrilled to have written and recorded, to cite just one example, “Darling Lorraine,” a love story as literal and detailed as the one about the Magrittes is suggestive and elliptical. Simon, on the other hand, seems to have lost sleep over it.

He needn’t lose sleep over In the Blue Light. Its superfluousness notwithstanding, it coheres. The explorations of romantic love add texture to the explorations of divine love (“Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” and “Questions for the Angels”), and the contributions of Wynton Marsalis and the chamber ensemble yMusic add textures to both.

A superfluity this obsessively wrought, in other words, doesn’t come around every day. As Simon turns 77 this October and is wrapping up what he’s calling his “Farewell Tour,” there’s a good chance that one won’t come around again.

A bounce and swing

It would be interesting and maybe even revelatory to hear Joni Mitchell revisit her favorite underappreciated songs as well. But as she has yet to recover fully from the brain aneurysm that sidelined her three years ago, her fans might want to avail themselves of Full Circle: The Music of Joni Mitchell (Whaling City Sound) by the jazz singer and pianist Debra Mann.

Eight of the 12 selections are as obscure as anything on In the Blue Light, giving the tribute a similar sense of rediscovery. And what Mann’s mellifluous voice lacks in Mitchellesque idiosyncrasy her combo makes up for in a bounce and swing that even Mitchell at her jazziest was never quite able to attain. —A.O.