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Paul Simon channels King David on Seven Psalms

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The album cover. Image: Wikimedia
The album cover. Image: Wikimedia

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s latest album, Seven Psalms, is an ethereal and heavenly masterpiece that asks the bigger questions around the existence of God.

Simon is best-known as one half of Simon and Garfunkel, the popular duo from the 60s and 70s who have since parted ways, briefly reuniting in 1981 for a world tour and again for various concerts.

As a solo artist, Simon has produced numerous albums including the well-known Graceland (1986) which won the best album Grammy that same year.

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It was culturally, historically, and aesthetically important with its world beat style, inspired by South African street music.

With Seven Psalms, Simon’s search for a unique sound continues. His fifteenth solo album is a 33-minute, seven-song cycle on acoustic guitar, intended to be listened in its entirety.

Over his career Simon has given us stories about youth, young love, politics, family—and now God and death.

He draws on inspiration received in dreams, reminiscent of the great biblical Josephs of the Old and New Testaments.

“The words Seven Psalms came to me. Then other words would come to me, I would write them down,” he said.

Simon is not religious, and didn’t know from where (or from whom) his inspiration came. He wasn’t even sure what a psalm was. So he studied the psalms of King David.

As if working by the Holy Spirit, he sings of letting go. Letting the words flow. Perhaps unintentionally surrendering, likened to one surrendering to the Lord, leaving it all in his hands.

In the first song in the cycle, The Lord (Part 1), Simon sings:

The Lord is my engineer.
The Lord is the earth I ride on.
The Lord is the face in the atmosphere.
The path I slip, and I slide on.

The tranquil sense of surrender is complemented by Simon’s recognisable voice and style. Melancholy melodies, almost recitative, coloured with vocal harmonies by his wife Edie Brickell, who in her own right is a talented singer-songwriter.

He ties the cycle together with beautiful chords, finger-picking and recurring riffs on acoustic guitar. An unusual combination of instruments is then scattered throughout including gongs, subtle drumbeats, chimes, harmonica, hand cymbals, violin, cello and flute.

The sometimes-melancholy mood doesn’t slide into gloom, and even verges on uplifting. If it is finality Simon is looking for, he makes it seem hopeful and beautiful.

It could be said that Simons’ heart has been “open” to divinity all along.

From the classic line in Mrs Robinson, “Jesus loves you more than you will know,” to his report of feeling “an almost mystical affection” in his exploration of South African music, to the Ethiopian icon on the cover of Graceland, there’s a sense throughout his work of unpremeditated spiritual seeking.

He could very well be looking to complete his journey as a musician, and perhaps will find it with Seven Psalms. He may even come to see his musical gift as the “gift of gifts.”

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