Paul Simon has an image you wouldn’t wish on a real estate developer. At the Radio City Gore-Lieberman benefit in September, he alone in a platinum-studded lineup used his own musicians instead of Paul Shaffer’s crew. Arguably, the polyrhythms of “Late in the Evening” and “Graceland” need specialists, but as his cameo’s setup dragged on, the sense of ego was palpable. A month later, the news broke that Us, owned by fundraiser co-organizer Jann Wenner, killed a negative Karen Schoemer review of Simon’s new album, You’re the One; she resigned in protest. Whether or not Wenner was involved, the incident smacks of the fat-of-life chumminess that he and other Simon friends—like Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, where Simon remains the most frequent musical guest ever—pursue with their once countercultural peers. More recently, an episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which Seinfeld auteur Larry David devised to give himself a celebrity boost, turned around jostling for an invite to Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen’s luxury box at a concert. Paul Simon, of course: what better stereotype than “Still Crazy After All These Years”?
Simon epitomizes those baby boomers who after the ’60s pulled their lives into shape, earned a good living, and grew ever more smug in the process, but still feel like spiritual seekers in their inner hearts, which they pour out with irritating regularity. Accept pop music’s right to fully represent this social type, just like anyone else (for some of us, Paul Simon is a bigger challenge than Godspeed You Black Emperor!), and You’re the One presents a solid portfolio. Working with veteran world and studio musicians, Simon again mixes the swirling African guitars and pan-African percussion he alone of his white rocker peers surveilled with ’50s echoes like the smack of “Blue Moon” doo-wop that’s the philosophical punch line of “Look at That.” Layering bamboo flute, pump reed organ, and 96-tone harp over the traditional rock sonic bed, he flirts with New Age but never gets there because he’s too innately rude: Just about every song indulges a sarcastic aside or crunchy break. What’s distinctive is the mix of self-aggrandizing earnestness, unconvincing empathy, and candid contempt—sort of like spending a social evening with your boss.
As an artist, Simon likes to insist on the chilly formality of his process. In Bill Flanagan’s book of interviews with songwriters, Written in My Soul, he’s the one who composes a certain amount each day, inspired or no. The new album emerged from drum sessions, then guitar adds, with words tacked on to what Simon says would otherwise have made a satisfactory instrumental record. Of course, this is nonsense—words and emotion cement Simon’s stuff, same as any other postfolkie’s. The leap-out track, “Old,” a sequel to “Still Crazy,” starts with a familiar groove that Simon quickly IDs—”The first time I heard ‘Peggy Sue’ I was 12 years old.” Then he makes the kind of joke his crowd can understand: “Buddy Holly still goes on/But his catalog was sold.” Carnal and potbellied at the same time, the tune is graybeard hooky-wooky done right, like his therapy-soaked spin on a time-honored soul music cheer: “Disagreements?/Work ’em out.”
When the bits here click, like the joke that begins “You’re the One,” or the slob voice Simon finds for “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” it’s a reminder that this is the guy who perfected the notion of feeling groovy to make pop out of verse as belabored as “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which paved the way for Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” which honestly I’m grateful for. Too often, that peppy and alert quality gives way to earnest pilgrimages like “The Teacher,” but even they have an edge: Making a point to “release my fists at last” in “Quiet,” he wants you to listen for him keeping them clenched elsewhere. Still, Simon never finds the anthem that’d blow the room away, and as rock’s most successful wimp he’s had hits with some of the frailest: Have you heard the drum’n’bass “Homeward Bound” in those Microsoft Network commercials with the rollingstone.com tie-in?
So You’re the One, like all of Simon’s work since Graceland, has to be judged a failure. The never straying “Frank From New York, New York,” a Paul too scared to try music, whose life is sketched in the ambitious “Darling Lorraine,” doesn’t hold up against “Duncan” listening to the couple fucking in the next room, let alone “The Boxer,” because Simon has lost his knack for the sanctified ordinary, for stepping into the skin of a perceived loser. After Capeman flopped, you’d have hoped! I doubt he has it in him to work the other side and parade his warts like Larry David. But something has to give. Image be damned, but pop doesn’t just flow out of groove and penmanship. You have to be a little hungry, too.