Once his father’s travelling companion on the road to Graceland, Nashville’s Harper Simon has grown up and assembled a multigenerational all-star cast for his layered and wryly intelligent half-grinning debut. From Al Perkins to Lloyd Green (who played pedal steel with The Byrds) to Steve Nieve (of Elvis Costello‘s Attractions) to Sean Lennon, Simon’s backing band comprises a who’s who of popular music’s history on record. Still, this promising debut is quite obviously the singular and compulsive vision of one talented singer-songwriter with a passion for reviving the LP as an arcing art form.
It is nearly impossible to listen to Harper Simon without comparing him to the dizzying body of work set forth by his father, Paul Simon. In his phrasing and lilting timbre, Harper sounds almost spooky in his resemblance to his father’s work pre-Graceland. Even still, it’s fantastically apparent from his cohesive and impulsively listenable first long-player that the son intends to run his own road, and to follow his own course.
“Howdy, I’m gonna tell you a story,” Simon sings on the country-tinged Tennessee. “Most of it is true. It goes back to my early memory, and maybe it will show you why I do the things I do.” Here he sounds nearly exactly like his father did on Kodachrome, and sure, it begs the question of whether or not we really need another rhymin’ Simon.
The answer – as is proven by Tennessee’s fantastic break, in which Simon demands, “Everyone get lowdown/ I don’t want no electric guitars in the background” – is yes, we damn well do, if only for his dedication to maintaining and refreshing time-tested songwriting, storytelling and musical techniques that have been wheezing their way to the grave in this, the murky dawn of rock ‘n’ roll’s first computerised century.
Simon’s debut sounds old-fashioned and sleepily lackadaisical at times – and, surely that most dangerous term from the critic’s tool-bag, safe, would not be too far off. But the entire record exudes a warmth and depth of personality – and likable personality at that – that dusts the whole thing with a folded-over quality, a self-spun dance ebbing toward modernity just as it flows into blissful and enveloping antiquity. It’s a familiar record, but like the first wafting hints of spring, it feels new with each encounter.
“There’s a place between waking and sleeping, a space where the land meets the sea,” sings Simon on the swaying The Shine. “That’s where the shadows are keeping the shine that you once kept for me.” This serves as an apt enough metaphor for the album’s precarious position in the modern popular music landscape. Shooting Star deftly presents the album’s other permeating metaphor: “Someday, you’ll find out who you are. Someday, you’ll be more than just a shooting star.” Simon concludes, “With a steel guitar and a microphone, I hope that you will find your way.”
This first record serves as a testament to Simon’s relentless quest to discover his own identity, and to pursue his own course among the constellations. He is undeniably his father’s son – and in this case, that’s a very good thing – but he’s also a promising new voice in an oft-neglected corner of rock ‘n’ roll songcraft. Harper Simon is certainly one to watch, and his first album offers nuances to be pored over and melodies to soundtrack spring days.