In equal parts touching and thought provoking, here is a work that reaches the very depths of the human soul
When Paul Simon announced his retirement from touring in 2018, it was only natural to think the door was beginning to close on future musical endeavours. We should have known better, for here he is at 81, still pushing at musical boundaries and restlessly seeking answers to modern life. Proof, surely, that great artists never really stop or go to sleep.
Sleep, it turns out, played a big part in the composition of this new work, specifically a dream on the night of 15 January 2019. Simon received a message, a voice telling him, “You’re supposed to write a piece called Seven Psalms”. Acknowledging the order, he set to work, the biblical Psalms of David at his side.
Inspiration ran freely, resulting in an unbroken stretch of music lasting 33 minutes that is unparalleled in his output. In that time, seven hymn-like meditations are bisected by thoughtful and often pastoral musical asides. Yet while his inspiration was mostly biblical, Simon has stopped short of nailing his colours to a particular religion, allowing his mind to run free. The first psalm appears devotional, introducing a distinctive guitar motif that recurs throughout the composition. “The Lord is the earth I ride on, The Lord is the face of the atmosphere”, he celebrates. There is another side to the coin, however, for “The Covid virus is the Lord, The Lord is the ocean rising”.
Accompanying his thoughts and sure-footed guitar lines are eerie, otherworldly contributions from cloud chamber bowls and Swiss tuned bells. Simon’s use of these reflect the feverish genesis of his material, most of it conceived late at night. Edie Brickell joins her husband at two strategic moments, adding a responsive voice to The Sacred Harp and a consoling one to Wait. Here both voices unite in an intensely moving finale, their last ‘Amen’ committed to the heavens.
Close listening to the lyrics reveals discontent with the world today. My Professional Opinion looks for a scapegoat. After the chugging of a harmonica that briefly brings The Boxer to mind, he sings of how, “I heard two cows in conversation, one called the other a name. In my professional opinion, all cows in the country must bear the blame.”
Your Forgiveness, on the other hand, is deeply profound. Layered with contributions from a colourful ensemble including flute, viola, cello, chalumeau and theorbo, it reflects Simon’s love of early music while pondering vast global problems. “I have my reasons to doubt”, he sings, “A white light eases the pain, two billion heartbeats and out… or does it all begin again?”
The music on Seven Psalms is simultaneously old and new, its autumnal colours and dappled textures painting scenes from late in the day. “It seems to me we’re all walking down the same road, to wherever it ends”, Simon muses on Trail Of Volcanoes. “The pity is the damage that’s done leaves so little time for amends”. At this time an apparition appears, the wordless ensemble of Voces8 leaving a lasting impression. The choir are an important element of the piece, their appearances marking notable musical junctions and expressive high points, used not just for distinctive colouring but to lend emphasis to important phrases.
Seven Psalms is equal parts touching and thought provoking, occasionally wandering off musically but rarely losing its intensity. At times it speaks of deep contentment and wonder, reflecting a creative life well lived, but alternately it expresses frustration at the reluctance of the world to strive for justice and peace. Its author remains a restless creative spirit, but Paul Simon’s music feels as relevant now as it ever has done, his work reaching the very depths of the human soul.