By Paul Simon
Simon & Schuster, 408 pages, $35
“It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road. There was a bright light, a shattering of shopwindows; the bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.”
These are the opening lines, the breathtaking opening image, of Graceland, Paul Simon’s biggest-selling solo album. Listening to them stream effortlessly against the song’s insistent bop, it’s easy to lose sight of the bloody, terrorized scene they depict. But read it on the page, in silence, as Lyrics: 1964-2008 permits you to do, and the extent of Mr. Simon’s genius hits you like a shot.
In a Hemingway-size fistful of words, he creates a world as precise as any—lulls us into it with soothing alliteration (slow … sun … soldiers … side)—and then, literally, blows it up.
Lyrics is both encyclopedic and, as with any book of words set to music, necessarily incomplete. It moves from Mr. Simon’s deceptively simple songs with Art Garfunkel, through the exuberant explorations of his early solo work, to the brilliant yet often inscrutable blockbusters, Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, and, finally, to the less-well-known but still searching work of the past decade.
What’s remarkable about reading these lyrics strictly as text is how unremarkable they frequently seem; as David Remnick notes in his brief but superb introduction, their power and poetry is inextricably tied to the music they accompany. Who knows which comes first? It’s clear that Mr. Simon writes his words with the music in mind and vice versa. (This may explain why he has never before in his 44-year career released a book of lyrics.)
There are a few clunkers, as you would expect in such a vast body of work, but these pale when set against the stunning quality and consistency of Mr. Simon’s work over the years. He has the rare, transcendent talent of being able to compose natural, sometimes lengthy sentences that scan and rhyme as though there were no other way to write them (“René and Georgette Magritte/ With their dog after the war/ Were strolling down Christopher Street/ When they stopped in a men’s store/ With all of the mannequins/ Dressed in style/ That brought tears to their/ Immigrant eyes”). Even when there are no rhymes at all—as in “America”—Mr. Simon’s control of language and imagery is so masterful that you only notice it on the page.
There is a Nabokovian playfulness to much of his work, phrases and stanzas that are at once abstract and precise, flamboyantly loose and sculpted to within an inch of their life. From “Thelma”: “Last night I slept on a rented pillow/ A silver moon above my head/ A thirsty dreamless sleep released me/ And I reached for the phone by the side of the bed.”
“You have to be a good host to people’s attention span,” Mr. Remnick quotes Mr. Simon as saying about the songwriting process. “They’re not going to come in there and work real hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, the rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out.” The depth of psychological understanding this represents—not to mention the generosity of spirit—is evident throughout this definitive collection. While it may not be a substitute for the real thing, it’s an essential document of arguably the greatest popular songwriter of our time.
Jesse Wegman is managing editor of The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.