Rock and roll has produced a number of brilliant musicians, but only a few artists whose lyrics consistently repay close scrutiny as poetry. There’s Bob Dylan, of course, who invented or reinvented modern songwriting out of the old bardic tradition; then there’s Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and you can add your personal favorite to the end of the list. Of that group, Dylan has drawn the lion’s share of critical attention, even to the point of excess (he’s already inspired a mammoth study by an Oxford literature professor and frequent rumors of consideration for a Nobel Prize). My own favorite, Simon, has garnered respect but never an equal level of reverence. Fortunately, last year’s publication of Paul Simon: Lyrics 1964-2008—by Simon & Schuster, which released a similar collection for Dylan in 2004—helped correct that imbalance by placing the two masters, so to speak, on the same shelf.
Between the Simon & Garfunkel Bookends album in 1968 and The Rhythm of the Saints in 1990, Simon established a poetic space for himself as a kind of anti-Dylan: perfectionist where Dylan was rough-hewn, urbane and miniaturist where Dylan was apocalyptic and maximalist, witty and precise where Dylan was deliberately bizarre. The result was a long string of solidly crafted short lyrics, punctuated here and there by gems: “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hearts and Bones,” “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” and the whole of Graceland—an album that, more than any other in rock history, works wonderfully as a unified suite of poems. Experiencing these classics on the page affords a fresh appreciation of their complex, allusive imagery and repertoire of memorable lines (“She was physically forgotten / But she slipped into my pocket with my car keys”; “One and one half wandering Jews / Free to wander wherever they choose”).
Songwriting at its highest level is a difficult hybrid art—being great at both music and poetry is like being a champion swimmer and pole-vaulter—and within it, Simon has produced as durable a body of work as anyone of his era. Critics have long given his music its due, but where words are concerned, the power of the collected lyrics should warn them against treating him as Dylan’s Garfunkel.
Bio: Austin Allen is an intern at Guernica. Read his last recommendation “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1408/rec_room_austin_allen_voices_v/.