In The Blue Light is Paul Simon’s 14th solo album. It is a collection of 10 of Simon’s past songs that have been deemed deep cuts and at times overlooked by the man himself. It is released in a timely manner as Simon is currently on his farewell tour after announcing his retirement from the music scene earlier this year. Therefore, In The Blue Light is not exactly an expansion upon the interesting textures and sounds explored in 2016’s Stranger To Stranger, rather it is an ode to Simon’s past work, a final parting gift to long-time fans who can now appreciate the growth he has had over his 50 years of songwriting, by contrasting his new re-recordings to the old original cuts.
Simon chose 1973’s “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” to re-record and open the record with. It’s a fitting track to open with – lovely piano leads trickle in to begin with until Simon’s recognisable voice enters the fray. What continues is four minutes of jazz and blues vibes, with simple drum grooves and woozy horn sections, and a fitting piano solo that transports you into a smoke-hazed underground jazz club. It keeps you there until the final piano chord is pressed. The decision to open the album with such a uniquely textured song does create an anticipation for what the rest of the re-recordings will bring – knowing full well Simon is willing to rework his catalogue with a new sense of creativity.
Following on from the opener is the one-two punch of “Love” and “Can’t Run But”. “Love” opens with a guitar melody that wouldn’t be lost in a Western film, with the light strums of an acoustic guitar accompanied by the plucky chords of an electric. It is incredibly stripped-back other than these two guitars, with light cymbal and percussion work remaining sparse to showcase Simon’s impressive vocals. It’s worth noting that these vocals remain consistent throughout the whole album. When coupled with the understanding that Simon is 76 years old you can’t help but be mesmerised by the level of skill and talent he still possesses. “Can’t Run But” has kept a similar structure to “Love” with very little loud or overzealous sounds, yet is contrasted by the catchy and captivating violins and string section present throughout the whole track. The sublime strings accompanied by Simon’s “I can’t run, but I can walk much faster than this, can’t run but,” produce a standout track.
It is at this point of the album that we return to the jazz-infused atmosphere that was laid out in opening track. “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns” is a slow, smooth and tantalising number about the grapple and draw of love. “In a fever I can hear your secret voice. Emerging from a dream, your voice returns,” Simon coolly sings over the top of beautifully produced piano chords and soft skinned drums, with a Miles Davis inspired muted trumpet appearing throughout sections of instrumentals to cap it off. The pace changes again with the much more vibrant and upbeat “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” delivering a fun New Orleans Mardi Gras street party vibe. This track definitely has a lot happening at once, and perhaps suffers a little as a result. As well as this, the change in pace does suggest a glaring issue with this compilation of reworked songs – there is no definitive direction or speed at which this album remains consistent, especially for the first half. Therefore, going from “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns” and then into “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” does appear to be jarring at first, yet this is a minor issue, and due to the album being a collection of various songs from Simon’s catalogue it is understandable.
Simon’s storytelling ability is more than on display in “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves”, and continues into “René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”. Simon’s soft and warm vocals accompany this track, with minimal production other than the few guitar chord and string sections. It is Simon at his most innocent and open. Weaving the tale of a couple reuniting after war into an emotionally charged and refreshing song, it is especially interesting when Simon’s vocals swoon over the delicate instrumentation towards the end.
As the album progresses, Simon elects for a much darker tone than he opens with – “The Teacher” being this turning point. A haunting guitar strums along to Simon’s tale, with a perfectly uncomfortable saxophone entering the fray throughout. The religious themes are obvious throughout this track: “There once was a teacher of great renown, whose words were like the tablets of stone, to navigate the sea of sadness,” all biblical references to the likes of Moses and Jesus Christ.
These themes and storytelling wit continue with “Darling Lorraine”, a wistful story of a couple falling in love, facing challenges and growing old together. There’s an almost playful tone to the production and storytelling at times, with the crisp guitar work and short stabbing basslines providing a nice backdrop to the tale. Yet, as Simon traverses through the couples encounters and arguments, he ends on a moot point – “All the trees were washed with April rain, and the moon in the meadow took darling Lorraine.” It’s seven minutes of pure emotion, and definitely another high point in an album brimming with character, even if it is a tragic story.
By the time the final two songs come around, you have forgotten the journey on which you have come from, the various genres and soundscapes you have been exposed to. Simon does well in reminding you though with “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy”, another jazz influenced tune. Closer “Questions for the Angles”, continues the religious themes from “The Teacher”, whilst also allowing Simon to ponder on questions of fate: “If an empty train in a railway station calls you to its destination can you choose another track?” Simon lets the guitar peter out, with one final “questions for the angles,” delivering a calming and optimistic ending.
In The Blue Light is an enjoyable album, one filled with incredible production shine and bursting with storytelling elements that few songwriters possess in the current age. It doesn’t have the same punch or edge to it that recent final projects such as David Bowie’s Blackstar (2016) or Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker (2016) showcased so well, yet it does project a wit and heart unparalleled to many. It is a fitting farewell to a legend of the music world, the collection of stories fittingly re-worked by Simon and told only in a way he can.