Rail Gaze CD Club: Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon

Hearts and Bones is an easy album to overlook. Coming before it were four solo albums that sold better than it and had the hit singles it lacked. Coming after it was Graceland, which would justly receive universal recognition as Simon’s best album.

And yet it’s Hearts and Bones that I find myself coming back to the most often. More than any other album in Simon’s sprawling catalog, Hearts and Bones lays out Simon’s vision of himself as a songwriter and as a person.

It’s an album that interrogates the Paul Simon that wrote “Sounds of Silence,” the teen so wrapped up inside his own head that he can’t even say he feels disconnected from others except by invoking his own nightmares. This teen is everywhere in Simon’s early catalog, whether he’s taking up the disillusioned perspective of an aging boxer or insisting that he has no feelings for an old flame.

After so much alienated posturing, Hearts and Bones is where Simon finally pulls back the curtain on this teenager’s relationships:

And late at night my father came and held me to his chest.
He said, “There’s nothing more that you can do. Go on and get some rest.”

Looks like things aren’t so bad after all. Maybe Paul should just hug his dad instead of worrying about all those people running around that ghostly streetlamp.

At other points in the album, Simon’s critique of his distant, intellectual tendencies gets much more overt. I mean, for Christ’s sake, the album’s working title was Think Too Much. (In its final form, the album merely features two songs with that title, intentionally mislabeled so that “Think Too Much (b)” comes before “Think Too Much (a).”)

Nowhere are Simon’s thoughts on thinking more delightful than in “When Numbers Get Serious,” a track that lives up to the ridiculous faux-earnestness of its title. “I will love you innumerably/ You can count on my word,” Simon says, mixing together numbers and things that shouldn’t be numbered with the playfulness of a tipsy philosophy major.

Wait a second—Philosophy majors? Motifs? Double-meanings? Alas, it looks like we’re getting trapped in our heads again. Let’s get back to stories about people.

Fortunately, Hearts and Bones contains some exceptional stories about people. “Train in the Distance” is my favorite (possibly in Simon’s entire catalog). The bluesy keyboards and low humming evoke a wide-open twilight countryside, while backup singers chant to mimic the rattling wheels of the titular train. You can’t help but feel a bit of wanderlust as you wonder what this train is and where it is going.

The song’s story is simple, and Simon tells it simply; boy meets girl, they fall in love, they marry, they drift apart, they divorce.

Of course, Think-Too-Much Paul also has to have his say, and when he does, he must insert a dozen extra syllables into a line so that his swollen brain can fully articulate what’s at hand here. His two cents? “The thought that life can be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” It’s clunky, but it’s not wrong. The vague, impossible hope for a better love brought the couple together, and it also pulled them apart.

Maybe it was a little too early to throw out Think-Too-Much Paul after all. Simon’s analytical mind is a huge part of what makes his music interesting. It’s what allows him to say something new as he tells some of the oldest stories he knows. It can be a badge of alienation, but it can also be a tool for empathy.

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