With a career spanning five decades, pop singer/songwriter Paul Simon is at the height of his powers, and his evolution is beautifully displayed in two new recordings. Old Friends (Columbia Legacy) is a three-disc box of music by Simon & Garfunkel, the folk-rock duo merging Simon's songwriting talents with Art Garfunkel's vocal skills. Songs From the Capeman (Warner Bros.) is Paul Simon's first new solo recording in six years and offers 13 songs from his forthcoming Broadway musical, "The Capeman," scheduled to open at New York's Marquis Theatre on Jan. 29.
Play the two collections sequentially, and some intriguing and entertaining aspects of Simon's music snap into focus. From his first mature songs created for Simon & Garfunkel in the 1960s, evidences of Simon's fascination with issues of social injustice surface. While Simon has insisted in interviews that his songs have never been politically focused, he has consistently been concerned with creating songs about society's most marginalized and misunderstood characters. "Richard Cory" is the ultimate ballad of the alienated businessman; "The Boxer," a touching saga of an athletic has-been; and "Old Friends," a tale of the neglected elderly.
The genius of Simon & Garfunkel, lovingly captured by the 59 tracks of "Old Friends" (which include two early demos, 10 live recordings, and three newly discovered studio recordings), was to set these societally engaged lyrics to hummable melodies performed with choirboy sweetness. That was the Simon & Garfunkel trademark: closely harmonized folk songs marked by conscience-disturbing lyrics. Think of their music as dulcet entertainment with a barb.
The previously unreleased songs on "Old Friends" are not revelations, being tuneful variations on familiar riffs and subjects. But what is revelatory is the precise elegance of their harmonizing, heard clearly for the first time through the sterling remastering of the original source tapes. And while a handful of songs sound dated - the word "groovy" peppering several numbers sounds antiquarian - most hold up remarkably well as thoughtful entertainment, pop music full of pretty hooks about life's not-so-pretty moments.
When Simon left the duo and began his solo career in the early 1970s, he immediately fell in love with Caribbean rhythms. Songs on his first solo album like "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" marked his involvement, which evolved into a fascination with the African rhythms undergirding Caribbean music, an interest culminating in his Grammy-winning "Graceland" album.
"Songs From the Capeman" fuses Latin musical styles (salsa and calypso) with early rock vocal styles (doo-wop). It tells the complex story of Salvador Agron, a New York, Puerto Rican teenager who committed a gang murder and spent the rest of his life attempting to redeem himself.
Through songs written for a wide spectrum of characters, ranging from Agron's mother to his prison guard, Simon, with help from Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, creates dramatic scenarios raising the question of what constitutes redemption for us all.
In the most memorable song, "Time Is an Ocean" - the title a paraphrase of Walcott's poem "The Sea Is History" - Simon has Agron sing, "I'll take the evil in me/ And turn it into good." In a musical setting framed by Latin drums and piano, the words assume a heft and glow and musicality found in only the greatest musical dramas.