Reflecting On Paul Simon’s Masterpiece Album: Hearts and Bones

Paul Simon Hearts and Bones

Photo: Amazon CD Link

In 1983 Paul Simon released his fifth solo album, Hearts and Bones. This collection of songs were written and recorded following Simon & Garfunkel’s The Concert in Central Park (1981). It was originally intended to be a Simon and Garfunkel album but Garfunkel left the project midway through and Paul Simon finished it off by himself. The album is significant in Simon’s catalog in that it is the transitional link between his pop-folk-jazzy American song forms to the highly conversational, more rhythmic stylings of South African / world music found on his next album Graceland (1986).

Simon co-produced Hearts and Bones with Russ Titelman, Roy Halee and Lenny Waronker. It was recorded in the digital realm incorporating the high fidelity of the now defunct sampler, The Synclavier.  Consequently each track possesses a slick, almost sterile ambience; a far cry from Paul Simon’s 1980’s album One Trick Pony that featured a five -piece band performing all the tracks live and in the studio. Also, Hearts and Bones is one of Paul Simon’s most personal albums. His articulate lyrics deal directly with his relationship with his wife of less than year, actress Carrie Fisher and also probe into some deep philosophical ideas regarding religion and spirituality.

The album opens up with a witty song about Simon’s health, entitled no less – Allergies. It was released as a single that unfortunately did not climb into the top 40 like his previous commercial efforts. Though catchy as a Paul Simon single normally is, the additional overdub of lightning fast, precisely picked guitar notes by fusion axe man Al DiMeola may have been a little too jazzy for mainstream radio and the semi-comical content of the lyrics may have alienated the average “love song” listener. Also, this was a new sound for folk-pop artist Paul Simon as he incorporated electronic drums and digital synthesizer into the fold. Long time fans may not have known how to assimilate this kind of production. Nonetheless, it is an excellent composition based around the “Devil’s interval” or otherwise known as a “tritone”.

A tritone is a musical harmony that is employed to instill a mood of uneasiness and dark mystery.  A most notable example would be Olivia Newton John’s 1980’s hit Magic, which alternates between a D chord and an A-flat chord. In this case Allergies centers around the tension between A-minor and E-flat; a perfect combination to represent the agitation of having “allergic symptoms”.  At one point Simon even exclaims: I can’t breathe!

The second track is the title cut Hearts and Bones. This is a tender, folksy acoustic number painted with splotches of an oscillating keyboard sound. It was written about Paul Simon’s brief marriage to actress Carrie Fisher. The first and last verse opens with this classic Simon lyric:

One and one half wandering Jews…

The unrelenting left and right acoustic guitars (aided with congas and triangle) propel the almost conversational lyrics to their profound conclusion that two bodies twirled into one will ultimately bond forever. From interviews I’ve read, the couple still loved each other even after the divorce.

Interestingly, Simon would re-invent this song on his follow up album’s title track Graceland. The two songs share similarities harmonically and melodically.

Track three is When Numbers Get Serious. It is a synthetic sounding song with electronic drums, slap bass and Richard Tee’s classic Rhodes sound. This melodic piece is about the importance of numbers in everyday life. Everything has a number and they are used or misused depending on the circumstances. They are the basis of identity theft, finances, marriages breaking up over money etc… and the only place where you can be safe, (maybe) is in a personal relationship. Perhaps in the shelter of someone’s arms as Simon postulates.

It’s an interesting topic ripe for discussion. As for the song structure, it’s interesting. The chorus is incorporated into the verse and this leads to a more upbeat section (not necessarily a bridge) and then back to the verse/chorus – upbeat section again and then a new ending section where the tempo slows down and Simon concludes that no matter what, numbers always roll back to one.

Think Too Much (B) is the next track. The title is labeled as (B) though it appears first on the A side of the record. It is a slow version of Think Too Much (A). It features a sparse background with marimba and percussion vamping in a minor key with a delicate placement of comical “toy cow” moo sounds that sort of mock the serious nature of the lyrics. The whole production is washed in an outside ambience as if it was being performed in a village square. Simon reflects on the trials of his romance with Carrie Fisher and the distortions that come with it via the annoying press. Maybe he thinks too much about it and should let it go. In a dream his father tells him there is not much you can do – just try to get some rest. There is an emotional, almost spiritual quality to Simon’s vocal. He seems to be channeling an old Jewish melody that could easily be sung accapella.

Paul Simon uses a lot of metaphors in his lyrics. They can be taken many ways. This next song is a metaphor for sure: Song About The Moon. It’s a pop/folk masterwork that would sit nicely anywhere on his second and third solo albums.  Writing a song about the moon Simon declares can be a spiritual thing. It is a place that is a worthy symbol of human beings’ hopes and dreams; a profound thought that is capped with the seemingly frivolous syllables “na na na na na na”.  The emphasis on the syllable “na” (an ancient universal sound most Earthlings probably make), could have been influenced by the repetitive “na na na”… heard on the outro of McCartney’s iconic song Hey Jude.  Simon has been a close friend of the Englishman for many years and he admires his tunesmith abilities. Is this a nod to the other “Paul”?

The heartbeat of the tune stops at the middle section and Simon changes the lyrical tone by suddenly distancing himself with an observation about a boy and a girl laughing so hard at the absurdity of the human condition. Of course my sister and I always knew that Mr. Simon was clearly talking about us. We made that connection right away! Ha! Howsoever, this middle section is quite striking and it primes us one more time for the assured verse and strong chorus. Although Simon’s acoustic guitar is the main musical foundation here, the synthesized bass and phased keyboard bring an almost alien quality to the overall mood. Alienation never sounded so good. The song appropriately fades out on a “skip down the road beat” with a hopeful melody on top leaving us to think about the moon. “Think” being the key to the next tune.

Think Too Much (A) opens up side two. It kicks in with a funky Steve Ferrone drum groove followed by the clean, delayed left and right rhythm guitar playing of Nile Rogers. The bass then comes in along with what sounds like a ticker tape machine spewing out information. No doubt Mr. Simon was having some fun playing with the sampling capabilities of the Synclavier.  Simon’s voice comes in rattling off lyrical content heard in Think Too Much (B), but goes into a little more depth regarding left and right brain thinking and its existential hammering on religion, sex and his girl, presumably Carrie Fisher. In general, it’s a flippant, upbeat song about seeing the absurdity and fun that surrounds us all if we allow ourselves to break away from the strict rules and regulations we abide to in this matrix. At 3:04 its the second shortest song on this album but it packs a wallop and makes you want to play it over again to try to figure out its meaning.

The breezy Train In The Distance is next in the playlist. This is a typically well-constructed Paul Simon tune. Its title is memorable and meaningful. The form of the piece is clear and easy to comprehend on first listen. The orchestration is simple keyboards, drums, bass, Rhodes, backing vocals and a cello.  The cello (alla The Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations”) may represent the train chugging along to the very end of the song where it becomes the sole instrument in the mix. Again, the lyrics seem centered on a relationship between a man and a woman (Simon and Fisher?) and the battles a married couple goes through inevitably leading to divorce and child custody. The sound of the “train” perhaps represents something good to look forward to in the future.  A self- reflecting Paul Simon turns to the listener in the last verse and asks us point blank: What is the point of this story? He concludes that it is the belief that life could always be better. And this belief is something deeply sewn into our brains and our hearts.

The musical gears change up a bit and we are confronted with a whimsical tune called Rene and Georgette Magritte (with their dog After the War). The title apparently inspired by a book Simon found while waiting to rehearse with Joan Baez at her house. Cleverly, Simon uses the 20th century surreal painter, Magritte and his wife and dog as characters that waltz through a kaleidoscope of 50’s groups that inspired a young Paul Simon i.e. The Moonglows, The Orioles, The Five Satins etc… The imaginative lyrics are wrapped around a beautiful, lilting melody supported by a continually descending bass line in the very friendly guitar key of E. The production is drenched in a dreamy reverb with 50’s style harmonies weaving in and out of the chorus and a string section to highlight the bridge of the song. Simon’s vocal is tender and heartfelt. A professionally shot a video of the song featuring his then wife Carrie Fisher was released in 1983.

The melancholy of “Magritte” is soon left in the dust with the next track, Cars are Cars.  In this seemingly simple song whose verses owe a nod to the melody of the Simon and Garfunkel classic Cecilia, the use of the Synclavier comes to the forefront.  In almost cartoon fashion a jerky start and stop, mechanical groove with handclaps and a sample of sax sounds representing car horns are programmed, highlighted by Nile Roger’s excellent rhythm guitar playing and a synth bass. A spacey, subtle keyboard pad fills in the sonic gaps.

The form of the song is interesting. It opens with the hook “Cars Are Cars”, then we are treated to four measures of triumphant keyboard changes, then back to the hook and without any build up the listener is confronted with a bridge that is profound lyrically and musically. I remember my sister and I upon first hearing this section being very moved by the change in overall harmonic structure, sympathetic melody and Paul Simon’s somber vocal. Its subtle sophisticated harmony fits perfectly with Simon’s reflective lyrics. We knew it was a special section and amazingly it happens again after another round of the chorus. For a more detailed lyrical analysis you can read it here:

https://paulsimonsongs.blogspot.com/2011/11/cars-are-cars.html

The final song, The Late Great Johnny Ace, like the opening track Allergies, is based around a tritone – “A-flat major 7 to D7. Simply put, it instantly sets a melancholy mood for this somber masterpiece about death. Simon first recalls the passing of a 50’s musician he heard in his childhood by the name of Johnny Ace. Then the song shifts to a slow shuffle feel in a major key for the next section. The vibe of the song becomes a more hopeful, bluesy sounding recollection of the 60’s with a nod to JFK’s death and the world-changing introduction of The Beatles and The Stones. Simon also recounts his time in London before Simon and Garfunkel fame. This section slowly transitions back to the tritone melancholy of the first verse but this time Simon recollects the night he heard that John Lennon was murdered.

The song is then edited to a mournful, repetitive section composed by twentieth century composer Phillip Glass. It is orchestrated with a small string section and a flute pivoting back and forth on minor third intervals. The effect is that of someone taking their last breath. The whole song is a chilly reminder of the existential end we all must come to face but try our best to be distracted with relationships (Hearts and Bones), day to day calculations (When Numbers Get Serious), religion (Think Too Much) music and art (Rene And Georgette Magritte) health issues (Allergies), hopeful dreams (Train in the Distance / Song About The Moon) and social-politics (Cars are Cars).

In the annals of popular music Paul Simon is considered one of America’s greatest songwriters and recording artist. Take a listen to this album and you will understand why.

Use of Paul Simon’s album cover art is protected under the United States Office of Copyright Fair Use Doctrine Section 107 of the Copyright Act that protects the authors right to show the art that is being critiqued in the article.
All album cover art in this article serves also as links to the respective Paul Simon album on Amazon.com

www.johntabacco.bandcamp.com

www.johntabacco.net

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