Album Review: Paul Simon’s “Seven Psalms” — A Prophet’s Message to Us All
By Jason M. Rubin
This album may be too mellow, too grim, too serious for the average listener, but hear me: This is an amazing and important work of art, quite possibly the legendary songwriter’s own elegy.
Like Bob Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming, the just-released Seven Psalms is being labeled Paul Simon’s “religious album.” The fact is, Simon, in common with Dylan, has long included religious references and spiritual sentiments in his lyrics. From covering the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain” on the first Simon and Garfunkel album and “Silent Night” on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, to Jesus making an appearance in “Mrs. Robinson” from Bookends, to his own gospel-tinged “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock,” to his paean to Jerusalem in “Silent Eyes” from Still Crazy After All These Years to his 2012 album, So Beautiful or So What, which is dappled with divine topics, God has been on this talented agnostic’s mind for a long time. Still, it’s clear that in Seven Psalms, Simon, now in his 80s, is concentrating on existential questions as he ponders what might become of his body and soul when he passes from this mortal coil.
The structure of the album is more unprecedented: the seven songs (or psalms, or whatever they might be) are presented in the CD as a single, 33-minute track. Simon says that his intention was that listeners should consume the entire work in the order in which it is presented, all in one sitting. In terms of dynamics, all the pieces fit within a certain range: all acoustic, all ballads, light on percussion (no drum kit or cymbals), tempos consistent. Though there are some support players (percussion, strings, etc.) and backing vocals (including Edie Brickell, Simon’s wife, joining for two duets), Simon plays everything else, including dobro, baritone guitar, talking drum, bass harmonica, glockenspiel, and harmonium.
The mellow presentation puts the focus on Simon’s guitar, voice, and, of course, lyrics. At 81, he is well up to the task. His guitar playing, always underrated, is beautiful throughout, full of interesting patterns and rich voicings. The compositions do not stretch or strain his vocal range, and while his voice is somewhat grainier than when he was younger, his tenor remains a comforting sound.
The album opens with the sound of bells (repeated in many of the transitions from one song to the next), then Simon’s guitar begins playing the intro to “The Lord,” in which he notes the inevitability of death (“the great migration”) and evokes the omnipresence of God by defining all the things that the Lord is: engineer, earth, virgin forest, forest ranger, food, Covid, ocean, and, quoting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “a terrible swift sword.” Still, he tries to be optimistic: “The seeds we gather/From the gardener’s glove/Live forever/Nothing dies of too much love.”
After a brief silence, the second piece, “Love Is a Braid,” begins. “I lived a life of pleasant sorrows,” he sings, understanding that through it all, “A jury sat deliberating.” Picking up the garden reference from the previous song, he notes that “The garden keeps a rose and a thorn/And once the choice is made/All that’s left is/Mending what was torn.”
“My Professional Opinion” adds politics to the discussion, addressing a “Mr. Indignation” who carries a sack full of grievances. “All cows in the country must bear the blame,” Simon sings, registering the prevailing sense of despair in our society. He advises that we are “better off not going there.” A short reprise of “The Lord” acts as a bridge from “My Professional Opinion” to “Your Forgiveness,” in which Simon prays for redemption. “I, the last in the line/Hoping the gates won’t be closed/Before your forgiveness” is an image taken directly from the Yom Kippur service, where the gates to atonement are open to the contrite, but close again at the holy day’s end. He extends the thought to ruminate on the possibility of reincarnation or other types of life after death: “I have my reasons to doubt/A white light eases the pain/Two billion heartbeats and out/Or does it all begin again?”
“Trail of Volcanoes” seems to reflect the other side of eternity: hell. The first verse talks about carrying his guitar down to the crossroads, where, of course, Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil. The trail, he sings, is “Exploding with refugees” and yet “We’re all walking down/The same road/To wherever it ends,” and there’s “so little time/For amends.”
The remaining songs, “The Sacred Harp” and “Wait,” both feature Brickell. The first is a story of the couple picking up a pair of hitchhikers, one mystical and one mute. Simon leaves the narrative to reflect on God’s apparent love of music and those who make it: “The sacred harp/That David played to make his songs of praise/We long to hear those strings/That set his heart ablaze” is a Leonard Cohen-esque verse that precedes the statement, “God turns music into bliss.” Simon and Brickell harmonize beautifully. Another reprise of “The Lord” follows, this time with new lyrics; God now is also a puff of smoke, a personal joke, his record producer, music, and “the train I ride on,” another spiritual reference.
The concluding song/psalm casts Simon on the brink of nonexistence. “Wait/I’m not ready,” he protests. Brickell helps him cross over: “Heaven is beautiful/It’s almost like home.” Simon says, “I want to/Believe in/A dreamless transition” and Brickell continues to draw him to his eternal home. The two of them then sing “Amen” in unison, ending the album as gently as it began.
This album may be too mellow, too grim, too serious for the average listener, but hear me: This is an amazing and important work of art, quite possibly the legendary songwriter’s own elegy. For all our lives, we’ve been listening to Paul Simon. He understands that his music will continue after his own voice has been forever silenced. But Seven Psalms just may be the work of his that resonates the longest — as long and clear as the bells he plays that call us to still ourselves and to take in with gratitude this prophet’s message to us all.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for nearly 40 years, more than half of which as senior creative lead at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency, where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His latest book, Villainy Ever After (2022), is a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. jasonmrubin.com.