Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms: Matters of Life and Death

Paul Simon’s <em>Seven Psalms:</em> Matters of Life and Death

Written by Wayne Robins

The good news is that Paul Simon is still writing and singing about troubled waters.

The bad news is that the waters are rising, and there is no longer any bridge.

Paul Simon was probably not planning on creating an album, released today, called Seven Psalms, a 33-minute song cycle meant to be listened to in one sitting. My preference would be in a dark room, illuminated by a single yahrzeit (memorial) candle, because this is about the end, my friend, and no matter what your faith, I would reconsider that pact we signed 55 years ago when Jim Morrison of the Doors made his then-outrageous assertion: "Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection." We were stoned, Lord. We didn't mean it. At least I didn't. Four years later, Jim Morrison was dead. I'm not suggesting cause and effect. I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just an observer, though the great power of the Doors was that they made us feel complicit in what they did, participants in their dark magic happening.

Paul Simon is 81 years old. Four years ago, he tells Martin Cullingford of the classical music magazine Gramophone (UK), he had a dream, "on January 15, 2019, and the dream said: 'you're supposed to write a piece called Seven Psalms'." (He shows the scrawled paper in the trailer.) At first Simon wasn't sure what a psalm was. Then he started creating some music on acoustic guitar. Then, more dreams: "I started waking up during the middle of the night two or three times a week, between 3:30 and 5:00 am, and words would come. I would get up and write them down, and then I'd see if I could write a second verse as well – but as soon as I tried to do anything, everything stopped."

Simon has also talked about his process of starting a song beginning with a first line, without a plan. The first and reoccurring song in Seven Psalms is called "The Lord," and it begins: "I've been thinking about the great migration." The Great Migration is defined by the National Archives African-American history section as two periods between 1910 – 1970 (before and after World War II), when six to seven million black people left the mostly agricultural jobs in the Jim Crow South for factory work in the north. "And I imagine their destination," Simon sings, "Meadow grass, jagged rock."


Then, modeled on the Psalms of David, the most famous of which is Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shalt not want," Simon begins to describe his visions. "The Lord is my engineer...the earth I ride on...the face in the atmosphere...the path I slip and slide on," an evocation of Simon's 1977 single, "Slip Sliding Away." But darkness descends in the last verse of "The Lord," which declares: "The Covid virus is the Lord/The Lord is the ocean rising/The Lord is a terrible swift sword..." There are more than 50 ways to leave your lover, to leave this world, or have the world leave us.

The second psalm, "Love is Like a Braid," has a pivotal line that shows a more serious side of Simon's spiritual encounters that were so humorous in the 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What. On that album, "The Afterlife" described a purgatorial state akin to a wait at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Twelve years later, the stakes are much higher, and there is less to joke about in "Love is Like a Braid":

I lived a life of pleasant sorrows
Until the real deal came
Broke me like a twig in a winter gale
Called me by my name.

There's still a wait time until things get sorted out. "A jury sat deliberating/All is lost, or all is well."

The third psalm is called "My Professional Opinion," which sounds like a complete dream, in which everyone is naked and whispering, the "expert" or "professional" can only offer the diagnosis, "I'm no more satisfied than you." There is one moment of levity, in which two cows are talking, then arguing, and professional opinion is "all the cows in the country must bear the blame." It's Paul Simon's dream, noted, but it sounds like a throwaway line from "Bob Dylan's Dream" circa 1963.

"The Lord" has a short reprise before the fourth psalm, "Your Forgiveness." There is some wonderful writing here: "Inside the digital mind/A homeless soul ponders the code/of forgiveness."

But it goes to the deeper question that haunts this brief album: Does humanity deserve forgiveness? Or did we blow it? "I," Simon sings, "I have my reasons to doubt/There is a case to be made/Two billion heartbeats and out." He repeats a variation, both dire and hopeful: his doubt about two billion heartbeats is whether "A white light eases the pain...Or does it all begin again?" He suggests a baptism in reverse: "Dip your hand in heaven's waters, God's imagination."

Simon plays acoustic guitar with the precision he's mastered over about 70 years of practice. He also plays an assortment of bells, gongs, cloud-chamber bowls and the like, while Jamey Haddad adds more percussion exotica. Voces8, a British a cappella group, is also utilized, not so much for vocal harmonies but instrumental harmonics: adding their voices to guitar tones, for example.


Paul Simon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Matthew Straubmuller (imatty35).


His wife, Edie Brickell, 57, joins him on this album, singing harmonies and the occasional solo line or verse on a few spins on the cycle. She's especially prominent on "The Sacred Harp," a mystical tale about two hitch-hikers that is atypical of Simon's songs for its lack of resolution, a kind of dangling conversation.

By the third interpolation of "The Lord," before the final psalm, the words have changed: "The Lord is a puff of smoke...The Lord is my personal joke." There's a query about whether we are anything special in God's creation, or "Are we all just trial and error/One of a billion in the universe." Then, Simon delivers his personal joke: "The Lord is my engineer/The Lord is my record producer," which would give godlike status to Simon's co-producer on this project, Kyle Crusham, who is also the engineer.

The final psalm is called "Wait," and it is scary. It's like one of those The New Yorker cartoons in which the Grim Reaper appears. Simon's "captions" include: "Wait, I'm not ready, I'm just packing my gear." He wants a "dreamless transition," does not want to give in to his "dark intuition." Then, he and Brickell harmonize on a final verse: "Heaven is beautiful/It's almost like home/Children! get ready/It's time to come home. Amen." Is this a joke, too, a grim fairy tale? It's not a belief system I recognize from anyone who, like Simon, was bar-mitzvah'd in Queens, even if they left religion behind. An odd whiff of cult fundamentalism, but I guess The Lord made that too.

If Simon is trying to scare me, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. These dream songs sound polite, but the attuned listener who has confronted their mortality will need to find their way home through their own unruly spiritual wilderness.


This article originally appeared here in Critical Conditions, the Substack blog of Wayne Robins, and is used by permission.

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