A decade ago Paul Simon gave us his last true studio album, The Rhythm Of The Saints. That album, and its predecessor, Graceland, introduced many North Americans to third-world musical hybrids as Simon brilliantly incorporated South African and, later, West African and Caribbean musical styles, musicians and instruments into his perfectly crafted folk and pop tunes. Hidden among the fresh sound and drive of the music on these albums was a new lyrical viewpoint -- one which had gradually changed from Simons early 70s hopeful, artsy stance to become wistful and, even, by The Rhythm Of The Saints, world-weary, angry, and cynical. OK, were not talking Sex Pistols-level anger, but even so, the man who had given us "Mother and Child Reunion," "St. Judys Comet" and "Loves Me Like A Rock" was now telling us that he could no longer sleep through the night, felt anger that no one could heal and even cynically observed that suffering and hunger might have a cash value. All of which makes the exquisite and gentle perspective of Youre The One even more stunning. And perspective is exactly the word to describe what Simon brings to this album.
First, lets dispense with the obvious. Yes, the musical globetrotting is gone. In its place, Simon is crafting songs that subtly draw on his world-music experiments, with propulsive and pronounced rhythms and several choruses full of tongue-twisting combinations of sounds and syllables. But the songs themselves are built on guitar, bass and drums, with bamboo flute, pump organ and vihuela as spice and not the main course -- which is just as well since the lyrics are the albums focus.
And what lyrics! When Bob Dylan, Simons other half in 1999s oddball touring combo, faced down death, the result was a dark masterpiece, Time Out Of Mind. Here Simon faces the same questions and, instead of gathering darkness, finds perspective, hard-won wisdom and peace. And hes not mouthing soft-headed platitudes, or speaking from the sidelines; instead, he testifies with the distillation of nearly 60 years of living, with the humility of a scarred, often-defeated, but always honorable, soldier. For example, "Old" begins with Simons straightforward declaration of age, "the first time I heard Peggy Sue I was 12 years old," and the joy his friends take in reminding him of it. Where Bruce Springsteen would turn this into "Glory Days Pt. II," Simon gains perspective by backing up, pointing out how long ago Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed walked the earth -- and even more, that humans were around long before that. And before that, the world. And before that, God. The key line though, the one thing Simon has learned with age, is dropped innocuously in the middle of the song: "Disagreements? Work em out." Perhaps it really is that basic and simple, at least when you have the perspective of all those battles.
Love gets the same treatment. In the title tune, Simon's simple declaration, "youre the one," mutates into "youre the one, you broke my heart," and finally to "when I hear it from the other side its a completely different song." "Love," gently points out that the only thing worth having, even though we abuse it and forget it, is love.
Youre The One is filled with elegiac dignity, hard-won but simply offered wisdom, and sincere gentleness, but perhaps never as succinctly as on the last track, "Quiet." Against a pump-organ background, Simon composes an eulogy of rare, luminous beauty. Reminding us that life asks more than we can deliver, he also points out the dignity of the trial, as well as the importance of remaining true to self. Simple truths, yes, but so simple that they are the first ones to be lost in the chaos of life, and, thus, are the ones we most need to be reminded of.
GO BACK TO: