This album has gradually become one of the most admired among Paul Simon’s hardcore fans, but it was a commercial disaster at the time and is still underrated (or at least relatively unknown) among the general public, so I thought I would try and call some attention to it.
Personally, I’d argue that in the pantheon of Paul Simon’s albums, this is second only to the legendary Graceland in terms of quality. So why was it such a flop when it came out? I can’t say for sure, but I imagine it had something to do with the fact that this album doesn’t contain a single potential radio hit (and indeed, none of its songs managed to crack the Top Forty). It’s not that the album is inaccessible, by any means…just too special and delicate to really be meant for Pop success. But this record stands as one of the all-time artistic showpieces of Simon’s career as a singer-songwriter, and contains some of his most exquisite compositions.
This was originally conceived as a reunion album for the team of Simon and Garfunkel before a fight between the two derailed the idea, but while there are places you can kind of pick up on this through the album’s sound, which does often echo Simon’s early work with his former partner, it works more than well enough without Garfunkel’s contribution, and frankly, having someone else singing along might have sabotaged the intensely personal and confessional feel of the album.
Some people have suggested that is Simon’s ‘breakup album’ after his failed marriage to actress Carrie Fischer, equivalent to items like Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan or Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye. But to be perfectly honest, only a very few tracks here touch directly on Simon’s divorce…the intensely rueful album opener “Allergies”, the beautifully honest title track, and perhaps the wistfully hopeful “Train In the Distance”, which is about an archetypical marriage and divorce and what it says about the human condition.
Granted, there is one out-and-out clinker on the album…the tinny, irritating “Cars Are Cars” might actually be the single worst song on any Paul Simon album. And there are a few other relatively earthbound pieces, like “When Numbers Get Serious”, an interestingly quirky exploration of neurosis that features fairly clever lyrics, but doesn’t really measure up to the rest of the album.
But this album also contains a large number of absolutely gorgeous moments. The hard-to-describe blend of Doo-Wop and Art Song “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” is breathtakingly beautiful. “Song About the Moon” is a poetic lesson is songwriting, written to sound almost improvised, and is one Simon’s most explosively rhapsodic expressions of joy. “Think Too Much” comes in two versions, one a fairly straightforward contemplation on Simon’s various neuroses and one a dreamlike, hauntingly gorgeous lyrical passage. And the album closes with a fascinating and deeply haunting three-part song called “The Late Great Johnny Ace”, which draws a parallel between the deaths of Johnny Ace, John F. Kennedy, and John Lennon.
This album may not feature many of the take-home Pop tunes heard on Simon’s more famous albums, but time has revealed it to be one of his most artistically important works, and while most of Simon’s more passionate fans who might be reading this have already heard it, it remains essential listening for any newcomer who is trying to learn more about Paul Simon’s body of work.