A New Vantage Point on a Storied Career

Stephen Deusner

3 Min Read

Paul Simon was in his early 30s when he wrote “Kodachrome,” a song about the pangs of remembering, and he was in his early 70s when he opened a show with it in 2012 at Hyde Park in London.

The technology he mentions in the song was long obsolete, but Simon was anything but. He’d been mentioned as an influence on young indie rock acts like Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear and the Shins, who drew inspiration from his clean melodies and erudite lyrics. He had a new career retrospective out, “Songwriter,” along with a new album, “So Beautiful or So What,” which was already being touted as a return to form. Running through a long and energetic setlist, he was interested in the present insofar as it offered a new vantage point from which to survey his long career.

After opening with “Kodachrome,” he closes the show with “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a song about romanticizing your past and hoping you’ll stay crazy for years to come. Both were written nearly 40 years before, when he had a lot fewer years to look back upon, but Simon always tended to pen songs that he could grow into, that would mean something different — to him as well as to his fans — at different stages in life.

Simon finds humor as well as pathos in the idea of nostalgia, and he seems to marvel at how these songs have changed and shifted over time.

He was taking a long glance backward, and the reminiscences of “That Was Your Mother,” “Hearts and Bones” and “The Obvious Child” sound more bittersweet than ever, as the memories that inspired them sink further into the past. As “Kodachrome” suggests (“When I think back on all that crap I learned in high school…”), Simon finds humor as well as pathos in the idea of nostalgia, and he seems to marvel at how these songs have changed and shifted over time, how the chorus of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” becomes a pummeling R&B stomp or how a line in “The Sound of Silence” now bends downward instead of up.

Halfway through the set, he dismisses his touring band and welcomes a new set of backing musicians who played on his 1986 album “Graceland,” including guitarist Ray Phiri, Vincent Nguini and John Selolwane. That album was made by a man who thought his career was faltering. His previous album, “Hearts and Bones” (1983), had been met with dismal sales, leading his label to wonder if he could thrive in this decade. Though many of his ‘60s peers — including the Kinks, the Moody Blues and even the Grateful Dead — enjoyed fluke hits playing into Boomer nostalgia, Simon became obsessed with the music reverberating through the Soweto district of Johannesburg, in particular mbaqanga and isicathamiya (the latter pioneered by vocal bands like Ladysmith Black Mambazo).

Rather than recreate those sounds with session players, Simon broke the UN’s cultural boycott of South Africa to record with those Soweto musicians (a controversy that still resounds, as there were protests over his Hyde Park show), and then took them on a lengthy world tour. Their reunion at Hyde Park followed close on the heels of a box set commemorating the album’s 25th anniversary, but their reconsideration of “Graceland” doesn’t sound like an obligation to his audience. For one thing, they don’t run through the track list in order, but shuffle the songs around, as though Simon is resequencing his memories.

“You Can Call Me Al” becomes an unlikely climax to the set, its percolating rhythms and exclamatory horn lines given more weight by the thousands of people singing along — a reminder that the memories bound up in these songs are not Simon’s alone.

Paul Simon and company celebrate the finale of their 2012 concert in Hyde Park.

Stephen Deusner is a music journalist who writes for Pitchfork, Uncut, Stereogum, the Bluegrass Situation and No Depression, among other print and online publications. In addition to writing long-form liner notes for recent reissues by Pylon and the Glands, he will publish his first book, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers,” in September 2021.

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