Sharps and Flats: Paul Simon

Douglas Wolk reviews 'Songs from the Capeman'.

By Douglas Wolk
November 27, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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Paul Simon is arguably the only pop star of the '60s who's consistently gotten better over time. But that also means he keeps raising the bar for himself. You've probably heard that "The Capeman" is Simon's forthcoming Broadway musical, based on a famous incident from 1959, when 16-year-old Salvador Agron murdered two other New York City teenagers and was sentenced to death himself, then had the sentence commuted. The show opens in January, but it's previewed by Simon's own record: 11 songs from the musical, presented as a concept album.

Coming six years after his last studio album (the difficult but ingenious "The Rhythm of the Saints"), this is setting the bar awfully high. With "Adios Hermanos," the first song on "Songs From 'The Capeman,'" he sails right over it. It brings together nearly everything notable he's done in his career, from the prefab pop forms of Simon & Garfunkel's early days as Tom and Jerry to the New York-intellectual sophistication of his '70s work to the world-music appropriations of "Graceland" and "The Rhythm of the Saints." Basically a slow, dark, almost a cappella doo-wop number in the vein of the Orioles' "It's Too Soon to Know," its harmonies are modeled after those of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Simon's clear, fluid tenor flows over the top of it as he assumes character after character within a salsa-inflected melody, telling the story of Agron's sentencing in dead-on vernacular: "The Spanish boys had their day in court and now it was time for some fuckin' law and order/'The electric chair for the greasy pair,' said the judge to the court reporter." It's a brave, beautiful song.


The rest of the album isn't quite up to that standard, but parts of it are great, especially when Simon plays with '50s pop styles. "Bernadette" interweaves glistening turns of phrase with smooch-song clichis ("I'm Sal Mineo, and I need you so") to make its point: Chordettes and Paul Anka songs are the language of love itself to these characters. Only the silly Coasters-style "Quality" seems forced. Simon is less sure about how to make his Latin-pop-derived songs work -- "Born In Puerto Rico" has as romanticized a lyric as "Under African Skies," and the music is as cliched as Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." The stalking Latin-jazz piano leads of "The Vampires" are much more effective, and the slight Spanish accent he adopts is less dubious than it seems -- he's trying to capture the savage cadences of a street gang's speech, and he gets it right.

More questionable is his decision to have others sing some of these songs on his own album. "Time Is an Ocean" is being billed as the centerpiece of the album, and leaving aside that it's one of the weakest songs here both musically and conceptually, it seems weird that it's presented as a duet between salsa stars Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades. The words would sound more appropriate in Simon's voice.

Considered as Broadway fare, "The Capeman's" songs are either a brilliant new direction for theater music or a disastrous understatement -- it's hard to tell before the show opens. There are no rafter-shaking vocal showcases (maybe because Simon's no Whitney Houston) and only a few big ensemble pieces. "Can I Forgive Him," written as a trio for the mothers of Agron and the murdered boys, is mostly sung (by Simon) in a soft croon, though crasser hands would have made it a show-stopper. And the words are often at a level of diction way higher than ordinarily heard on stage. (Nobelist Derek Walcott co-wrote the lyrics, though it's often hard to detect his hand in them.)


"Songs From 'The Capeman'" doesn't totally click as a complete album the way Simon's last two did; when it switches out of the '50s idioms of the first half, it loses some steam, and its dips into original-cast-recording mentality distract from the unity of Simon's work. But the ambition and rigor of the project are impressive. It's great to see a pop musician of his caliber reach for something more, and it's even better to see him sometimes grasp it.

Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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