Friday 4 July 2008

Paul Simon "Hearts and Bones" (1983) ('Core' Review #85, Revised Edition 2014)

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Paul Simon "Hearts and Bones" (1983)

Track Listing: Allergies/ Hearts And Bones/ When Number’s Get Serious/ Think Too Much (B)/ Song About The Moon// Think Too Much (A)/ Train In The Distance/ Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War/ Cars Are Cars/ The Late Great Johnny Ace (UK and US tracklisting)

‘In a while it just fell apart, it wasn’t hard to do’

It may seem odd that we start one of our 'core' 101 core album reviews with a tale of writer's block, appalling sales and by far the bitterest Simon and Garfunkel break-up of all their (quick count) eleven reunions up to the present day. Even to its own creator this record is a 'failure', the first Paul Simon record ever not to have a hit single on it somewhere, while the making of it caused him so much stress to write and record its coloured the whole period for him. Paul was angry that ‘One Trick Pony’ hadn’t done better, suffering from real doubt over his career as he tried to return to just writing songs again with his ideas of a second career as a script writer cut off and doubting everything. The poor critical and commercial response – the record barely made the top forty anywhere - almost led to Warner Brothers dropping him and caused Paul to directly re-think his career and embark for the last album of his three LP deal 'Graceland' (well Africa technically, but it amounts to the same thing). No songs from this album stayed in Paul's set lists for very long (although both the title track and 'A Train In The Distance' pop up occasionally), compared to the next two records which were played almost in their entirety in concert. Few songs from this record appear on the longer two or four disc Paul Simon compilations out there; none usually appear on single discs. 'Hearts and Bones' has been whitewashed from history, an idea that never quite worked and which should never have happened. Should Paul have changed his style so completely? Is the album really that bad?

Well, in a word, no. Yes this is a horribly patchy record with a curiously ugly front cover, but all things considered Hearts and Bones reaches heights that only a few of Paul’s other albums manage and its lows aren’t really all that low by comparison with this album’s tainted reputation. The loss of a new relationship with Carrie Fisher, which flowered and withered with marriage and divorce during the gap since the last album only to rise again after and end for good around 1990, clearly cost him dear, a high profile match-up that left him bruised and battered a third time and wondering about everything, thinking too much. As ever with Paul when things get serious, it’s the timing that’s most wrong. The speed of his writing meant that punk came and went while he was still putting the finishing touches to ‘One-Trick Pony’ and by 1983 new wave and pop meant that singer-songwriter albums about broken hearts couldn’t have been less out of fashion. Even some desperate production touches to make the whole album 1980s, insisted on by Warner Brothers it seems, took away from the core fanbase of real songs told honestly the way Paul always had. Suddenly the great fear of that film project, that Paul is secretly only a one-hit wonder, seemed to be true to its creator as he was out of luck, out of confidence and out of time.

However from the beginning there's been a core swell of fans who rate this album among the best that Paul has ever made - and that amount gets bigger every time Warner Brothers re-issue it on whatever new format happens to be in that year and more fans get to hear about it. One of these days I'm going to make a bar chart of AAA records showing the amount of love felt for a particular record versus its sales: chances are 'Hearts and Bones' would be in the top fifty for ‘amount of people who loved it versus amount of people who bought it’, maybe even the top ten, one of those records that slipped under the net but which most of those people who bought it don't just like but actively love (the same way that only a thousand or so people ever bought the first Velvet Underground album the first time around - but reportedly all of those people went on to form their own bands!) Paul has always been a writer whose worn his heart on his sleeve and at their best these may well be his most autobiographical songs. We get incredible detail about his and Carrie’s relationship, the dying embers dissected in a way we never got with Kathy or Peggy as Paul debates the question of how much of a couple’s lives truly intertwine when their together and whether relationships always look more promising as an idea in the distance than when they’re there. We hear about Paul’s doubts as he breaks out in allergies, suffers from writer’s blocks and suffers from insomnia not once but twice, worried that he thinks too much - or maybe he doesn’t think as much as he should. We get a tribute song to a friend and fellow musician who was shot literally yards from where Paul himself was living at the time, raising all sorts of issues about whether the same fate is going to befall him. We hear about how Paul turns to the safety of objects or even mathematics, because they won’t disown him the way people do (with ‘When Numbers Get Serious’ the most Art Garfunkel song in his back catalogue ever). Yes 'Hearts and Bones' features more filler than usual and perhaps more 'bad' songs than most Paul Simon records (another reason why so many fans just don't 'get' this record) with four songs that I would gladly never in my life again (high odds indeed for a Paul Simon record). But there’s a lot of work on this LP too, the triumphs on this album reaching such heights of beautiful poetry, haunting melodies, sumptuous vocals and open honesty that 'Hearts and Bones' just has to be on this list somewhere.

Much of this record is inspired by the failure of two relationships within two records. Not only has Paul broken up with Peggy - the mother of his son Harper, now approaching his teens - his life with the actress Carrie Fisher (we'll get it out the way now: yes she is most famously Star Wars’ Princess Leia; no I don't know what Paul thinks of the Star Wars films - although I hope he liked them more than me, old and new, where all the humans were outshone in the acting stakes by the ewoks) seemed to be over too. Much of 'Hearts and Bones' finds Paul back asking the questions he was searching for during the Simon and Garfunkel years: the 'where' and 'why' questions, with Paul's lyrics terribly uncertain and fragile for the first time in a long long time after seemingly knowing where he was going for much of the 1970s. Characteristically Paul doesn't engage on bitter rants or seek revenge so much as sound hurt and confused.  ‘Where did things go wrong?’ he asks himself several times over on this album, wondering why the two weren’t compatible and at what point they became ‘two’ and not ‘one’. Paul might talk about ‘hearts and bones’ becoming ‘one and they won’t come undone’ on the title track, but one of the themes on this album seems to be of things ‘unravelling’, of how even the best laid plans always seem to come apart at the seams because of events we can’t predict, whether it’s the ‘train in the distance’ that makes so much noise and chaos when it arrives, the painter Magritte whose life off-song is about to get disrupted by the outbreak of the second world war, even John Lennon’s pointless murder just as he was coming back out of retirement. 'Hearts and Bones' is an often dangerous world where things from allergy outbreaks to murders seem to take place randomly for no apparent reason - a far cry from the last time we heard 'Paul' speaking on 'Still Crazy', an album where he could joke about ageing and splitting up with the love of his life over such a simple thing about an argument over whether to open or close a bedroom window, because it was his choice. 'Hearts and Bones' is a very different beast that prowls a much scarier world; timid, worried and thoughtful and with a bigger 'heart' (I don't know what size bones it has) than possibly any other Paul Simon album. It is, not coincidentally, the last album Paul ‘made’ in his traditional songwriting manner too, with the songs the startuing point for all the recordings and arrangements and used as a sort of therapy session; in future Paul will often make his backing tracks first and fit songs to them (or someone else’s in the case of parts of ‘Graceland’).  

For a time 'Hearts and Bones' nearly didn't exist. In fact Paul's future career nearly didn't exist. Paul has never been a hugely prolific writer the same way that, say, Paul McCartney and Neil Young have been. If there's a new album quicker than five years these days it comes like a shock. However, even more so than in 1966 or 1968 or 1976-78, for a time he'd dried up completely, unable to think of anything to write. Chances are Paul was just so disappointed by the response to 'One Trick Pony' and so wrapped up in his own personal problems (and perhaps unwilling to share them with the world just yet) that for the only time in his career to date he found he couldn't write a thing. He just didn’t think anything was good enough (including the admittedly rather ropey demos included on the CD re-issue of the album, first drafts for four of the album songs). In addition, Paul was still suffering from the calcium deposits in his fingers that made playing he guitar painfukl and awkward. He’d covered this well in his career so far – switching to jazz piano that was easier to play than ‘rock’ piano for ‘Still Crazy’ and bringing in a cooking band from the beginning for ‘Pony’.  He couldn’t physically play the songs that didn’t yet exist in his mind anyway. We owe not only ‘Hearts And Bones’ but probably ‘Graceland’ to an unusually empathetic and supportive psychoanalyst who instantly realised it was the pressures from an expectant Warner Brothers (who'd paid Paul vast amount of money to record an album and make a film that hadn't done anything like as well as hoped) that were blocking his flow. Paul told him he  felt he could no longer write - what he actually felt was that he couldn't write what Warner Brothers wanted to hear and that (like Jonah in the 'One-Trick Pony' film) he was destined to become a relic from another age left behind by a new generation. His shrink told him to stop worrying about what other people wanted him to write and to write for himself for the pure fun of it, to not show the songs to anyone if he wasn't happy with them (which might be why these songs 'feel' so personal compared to usual: they weren't originally written with 'us', the fans, in mind). The pair also discussed what songwriters had always used to 'inspire' them down the ages - the result being the rather trite but heartfelt song from this album 'Song About The Moon', Paul’s first song started from scratch in four or five years. The log jam broke, the songs appeared ('Allergies' being next) and soon Paul was back on track - near miss #1 being resolved.

Near miss two was more difficult to avoid. Somewhere along the line Simon and Garfunkel got back together again. The two had, despite what the press thought, stayed friends across the 1970s, enhjoyoing each other’s company from a distance and four non-pressure reunion songs, mostly on Art’s records ([178] [188] [208] [247] ). Hearing that their local Centrasl park was in financial difficulty and needed a big-name act to put its finances back on track, Simon and Garfunkel discussed the idea of reuniting, wondering whether they even had an audience any more. They did and how:  the show in September 1981 was exactly the boost the pair needed career and ego-wise after a couple of flop releases for both of them solo. Though Arty was said to be angry at how few solo songs he got to sing and was disappointed that he hadn't sung as well as he had at rehearsals, he was game enough for a further tour. The pair inevitably talk got round to talk of doing an album together - their first full project since 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' in 1970. On paper it looked like a great idea - Arty was now a 'free agent' without a record contract, able to appear with any record label or work any project that took his fancy and both their careers needed a boost. The pair duly started work on an album that was tentatively titled ‘Think Too Much’ which became the basis for ‘Hearts and Bones’ and got further than most fans according to the still-unreleased bootlegs: they'd completed versions of 'Allergies' 'A Song About The Moon' and 'When Numbers Get Serious' and had already worked up arrangements for 'Cars Are Cars' and 'The Late Great Johnny Ace' as performed by them on tour. But from the beginning something wasn't right. The pair weren’t seeing eye to eye even as much as they did at the end of ‘bridge’ and had fallen into more set ways with their own recording habits, unwilling to compromise too far for the sake of the other. Paul, still suffering writer’s block, wasn’t coming up with the songs fast enough and felt under pressure. Recordings be came difficult, hit by arguments and misunderstandings, more like how the duo had parted than how they had started. Before things got worse Simon and Garfunkel agreed to go their separate ways, with Art’s recorded parts wiped by Paul in frustration after one last argument that ended this latest get-together. Simon and Garfunkel would never enter a recording studio together ever again. Once again Warner Brothers were horrified and commercially really needed the pair to get back together again. But, hard as that decision was, it's the right one. Once again the only problem with the idea of a get-together was the timing. Simon and Garfunkel still sound as good together as they ever did on the bootlegs - but they needed to start a record from scratch. This is perhaps Paul Simon's most personal set of lyrics ever, about the worries on his mind, the 'arc of a love affair' that's naturally ended and the death of John Lennon just a few blocks away from Paul's own apartment in New York. Arty's vocals just aren't right for songs like that and even on the 'finished' songs you can hear Paul struggling to find places to put Arty, with the singer being used for a few token cameos and some chorus harmonies rather than as a full collaborator where, as good as he sounds, he isn’t living these songs the way Paul does because its not ‘his’ story. The pair never got as far as recording 'Hearts and Bones' or 'A Train In The Distance' together, but personal songs like these really wouldn't have been right with Garfunkel's harmony (although Garfunkel would have made a better job at singing 'Rene and Georgette Magritte' solo than Paul, to be honest).

Paul may have deliberately recorded his more 'frivolous' songs with Arty intending to record a whole album like that in fact, as its suspicious so many of these personal songs are missing from the early sessions despite being already written and obviously superior to most of that work already done. When Garfunkel left the project Simon returned to his more personal songs. Unfortunately he didn't have enough for a full album and after abandoning an almost certain sales winner wanted to keep on Warner Brothers' good side for once so revived this lighter, fluffier material. As a result the album we get is a schizophrenic compromise: it's half the catchy commercial pop album the label want with Arty's voice removed and half the personal singer-songwriter classic that’s a fan favourite.  The two sides really don’t fit together on an album that tries hard to make us laugh and can’t, before making us cry without really meaning to, just for suddenly going back to being ‘real’. Truly this record shouldn't work - even within the same tracks sometimes Paul is trying to laugh only to check himself and have it come out crying ('When Numbers Get Serious' is actually a jokey song but ends in a poignant reflection of how all that matters to Paul is that 'two have become one', the song fading out on one of the saddest sections of this saddest of albums). Even 'Allergies' - which had it been a Beatles song would have been handed no questions asked, to Ringo - belies its creation as a novelty moaning song about minor irritation and becomes something far more hard-hitting and paranoid ('I CAN'T BREATHE!!!') The duality of the album is best shown by the way that Paul records not one but two versions of his reflective song 'Maybe I Think Too Much' about all the issues weighing on his conscience. His first version - actually heard second on the album - is an upbeat commercial pop song as wild and wacky as anything in Paul's back catalogue, bouncing around the room like [195] '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover' with ADHD and a whole kitchen sink full of sound effects replacing Steve Gadd's famous drum pattern. Feeling that this might be too frivolous for what was meant to be a heartfelt song Paul recorded it again - and it couldn't be sadder or more heartbreaking, the comical riff slowed down to a crawl where it sounds like it's crying and with Paul's intense vocal re-living every line. Unable to choose which version he liked better, Paul simply released them both; the fact that both extreme opposites fit different ends of this eclectic album says much about the extremes Paul bounces from here, from pop pedlar to honest confessional (although it won't surprise you to learn we like the slower one better). This uneasy marriage throughout the album between the frivolous and the serious is handled well, however, and taken as a whole Hearts And Bones works far better than by rights it should for such a mis-matched LP. Paul Simon is a master of contrasts as we’ve seen elsewhere on this site and Hearts And Bones is perhaps the best example in his solo work of taking the best of two completely different stylistic ‘albums’ and sticking them together to make one loosely cohesive one.

 In fact duality seems to be the theme of this album throughout, an idea that interestingly re-surfaces on quite a few of Paul’s more recent albums, balancing uneasy jocularity with equally uneasy seriousness to create a deeply uneasy, edgy, often dark album, where we don’t know where the axe is going to fall next with some particularly moody string arrangements and virtuoso solos balancing the effect of hearing some of Paul’s most simplistic straightforward songs. 'When Numbers Get Serious' is of course all about numbers anyway; a maths lesson about being seeing numbers everywhere and seeing patterns in addresses and phone numbers (turning emotional at the end with 'two becoming one' the final line, as if admitting defeat that numbers can solve anything as complex as human needs). 'Hearts and Bones' features two lover's lives entangled together slowly coming apart, while both their hearts and bones remain. 'A Train In The Distance' explains how different the same thing can seem when viewed from two different directions: when heard from a distance the cry of a railway engine sounds romantic; when heard up close it's all steam and noise and unpleasantness (this metaphor being hilariously extended to describe a love affair!) The painter and his wife 'Rene and Georgette Magritte' have a dual private life quite unlike that ever described in the books and biographies, Paul giving them his own beloved love of doo-wop records as an unlikely hobby (he's clearly describing himself and Peggy, though perhaps unwilling to sing about their relationship in the past tense just yet). 'The Late Great Johnny Ace' meanwhile is about the past which compares Paul's activities the days he heard about Lennon's murder in 1980 with his teenage self hearing that guitarist Johnny Ace had died in a game of Russian Roulette in 1956; a parallel that suggests that life is actually intertwined and fits to a repeated pattern (alright, alright, it's not just Paul who 'thinks too much' I know!)

As we've seen, the writing of this album is top-notch (by and large). One other thing that's so great about this album is how strong Paul's vocals are. Freed from the need to write for Arty and revitalised after his spell singing as another character in 'One-Trick Pony', Paul finally returns to his delightful 'warm' voice last heard a decade before on 'Rhymin' Simon' (and forgotten on the rather cold 'Still Crazy'). Paul's expressive vocals across this album are some of his best work, raising so-so songs like 'Song About The Moon' to a new level and making classics like 'Hearts and Bones' 'A Train In The Distance'  the slower 'Think Too Much' and 'The Late Great Johnny Ace' into spine-tingling expressions of emotion. Compared to the depths heard across this album (which he lives and breathes with every note, give or take ‘Allergies’) Paul's vocal work on 'Graceland' is a karaoke night at the bar. One thing that doesn't work so well, though, is the production: feeling spurned after 'One-Trick Pony' Paul goes the other way and under pressure from Warner Brothers to sound ‘cool’ tries every trick in the book to sound relevant and contemporary. To modern listeners he just sounds as if he's lost the plot: 'Hearts and Bones' is the only Paul Simon LP to come with a 'best before' date and at times sounds as early 1980s as Bananarama and Wham (thank goodness there were never any music videos made for this album or they'd have no doubt featured Paul as a cocktail waiter or on a beach holiday somewhere). The linn drums, the sound effects (including a typewriter on 'Think Too Much A' for reasons best known to the author), even the weird stereo-panning effect on 'Cars Are Cars', are all saying 'hey everyone, look at me!' Ironically this is exactly what would have put a lot of Paul's traditional fanbase off it; 'Hearts and Bones' sticks out like a sore thumb in between the albums it comes between, a far more jagged jarring leap than 'Graceland' will be and elsewhere only 'The Capeman' will sound this 'wrong'.

In short, it's easy to see why this album didn’t sell that well. This is, after all, a low-key collection of nervy philosophical gems which seems completely at odds with both the market of the day and the rather bombastic 1980s production that adds lashings of sound effects and chirping keyboards to even the quietest passages on the record is unnerving at best. And yet this strangely contemporary sheen doesn’t hide the fact that this is still a very characteristically Paul Simon album. The cornerstone of the whole record are the three long unwinding ballads which are just so in keeping with Paul’s earlier work: lyrical, descriptive, groundbreaking and downright moving, they remain some of the best songs he ever made. Even the other tracks see a return to the sort of tongue-in-cheek satire Paul made his own in the early Simon and Garfunkel days and while there’s nothing as universal or descriptive as [98] Sounds Of Silence, Paul Simon’s gift for detailed observations have never been better. It’s mainly because of ‘Hearts and Bones’ ‘Train In The Distance’ and ‘Think Too Much’ though that this album has such a high word-of-mouth reputation with fans and deservedly so, even if they were exactly the sort of songs that were guaranteed not to sell in the 1980s. Witness Warner Brothers’ insistence on some of the other, shoddier but undoubtedly more commercial songs included here: ‘Allergies’, ‘Cars Are Cars’, ‘When Numbers Get Serious’, ‘Song About The Moon’; anybody who claims even one of these songs as a Paul Simon classic needs his ears rinsing—but equally, none of these songs are bad enough to have seen this album kicked as far out in the cold as it has been in the quarter-century since its release.

As Paul Simon says, maybe he does ‘think too much’ and some of these song can lose the casual listener with their mixture of seriousness complexity and playful irreverence, but if you’re prepared to pay close attention then ‘Hearts And Bones’ is a deeply rewarding album. Some thirty-four years on from its release it stands up as a sweet little album that more people would like if only more people would hear it -making it a prime candidate for our quest to give people the 101 albums they ought to own but never seem to appear on these sort of list type things (we may have to work on a catchier name than that) (Note: originally back in 2008 Alan's Album Archives' was a collection of 101 reviews - it, err, grew over the years as you can no doubt see!) Forget 'Graceland', this is the 'real' rewarding Paul Simon and if you ignore the occasional sound effects he doesn't need any gimmicks this time to 'sell' it - this is pure emotion from a songwriter trying to process a difficult time in his life and like Rene Magritte turning his experiences into art the whole world can understand. Even without 'Art', 'Heart' has 'heart'.

The Songs:

[252] Allergies however is not an auspicious opening. It’s strange now to read about how excited Paul was when he first wrote the opening words to this song and felt his creative juices flowing back again as, well, they’re among the dumbest things this most intelligent and expressive of writers ever wrote. ‘Melodies, allergies to dust and rain’ isn’t a marvellously cryptic opening, it’s pretty much a gibberish one and the now very-dated 1980s production values of this recording don’t help. The song gets better as it gets going, though, especially when you realise that far from being the jokey song it sounds Allergies is actually a very ‘real’, very honest work. In it Paul complains that he’s ‘allergic’ to something that was formally integral to his life (presumably song-writing), telling us that its painful to pick up a guitar secrely not just because of a physical ailment but because it reminds Paul of the high reputation he has to live up to, of how he’s got to re-connect himself with his old audience all over again at an age when he’d rather be exploring new horizons than consolidating his past career. Worried that ‘people like me get better but we never get well’ Paul resigns himself to a life of itches, rashes and breathing difficulties. In this context the edgy humour about the narrator’s paranoia and his painful cry ‘I can’t breathe!’ are only funny on face value are actually quite horrifying  – this is one hell of a troubled writer trying to remember why he used to dream of being in the music business after all the pain and trouble it’s caused him. If that isn’t strange enough, this whole scary song is played for laughs like never before, with some rather forced comedy lines about the narrator’s problems and how allergies are destroying his chance of love and happiness (because, as the singer memorably tells us, ‘I’m allergic to the women that I love and its changing the shape of my face’. Quite). The backing track is truly weird, with a traditional rock ensemble trying their best to be heard above a 1980s sound-scape so huge, cavernous and contemporary-sounding that you almost expect it to be wearing shoulder pads. However, this backing is rescued in part by a spectacular guitar solo from otherwise unknown guitarist Al Di Meola, a fantastically tricky piece played at neck-breaking speed that successfully translates Paul’s nervy energy and self-doubt into music and which brought this song a lot of notice at the time that it probably didn’t deserve. This is, after all, a song at its most basic level about Paul not being able to hold a guitar anymore and full of fears that he will never get to play anything on the instrument that once breathed so much colour into his life, never mind that a part most guitarists would struggle with.

There’s no qualms about the title track though, a moving philosophical ballad so deep, so heartfelt and moving that only Paul Simon could write it. [253] Hearts and Bones is the first of a series of songs about the composer’s complicated break-up with actress Carrie Fisher, touching on the couple’s shared Jewish ancestry (well, ‘one and one-half Jews’ as Paul puts it) and how their lives, ‘their hearts and their bones’ have become so intertwined that they will never be able to stay completely apart even if their lives naturally take them far apart. As with many of Paul’s songs about divorce the two are ‘travelling’ (see much of ‘Graceland’), trying to get to a destination they will never reach, their life paths meeting only for a short precious time. . This song also points to the forthcoming title track of [264] Graceland, with the way its characters are embarked on a journey away from each other mentally as well as physically, but here the theme seems to be leaving something behind rather than re-claiming it as Paul does later. Paul’s narrator also makes it clear that love is like ‘lightning’ in this song, it might brighten up our lives forever but it could be sometimes that it only strikes once and the spark between a couple often doesn’t last until their wedding night, with the ‘arc of a love affair’ mapped out in advance.  Only as they look backwards do they see the relationship for what it really is, what used to seem like ‘mountains’ now slipping into ‘stones’. Paul remembers ‘love like lightning, shaking till it moans’ but he also knows lightning doesn’t strike twice and that was meant to be was only meant to be for a short time. Now all that’s left in a damning final verse is for the couple to return to ‘old acquaintances’ and ‘speculate on who had been damaged the most’.Paul knows, though, that they will always be intertwined on some level because the act of having sex itself, of two bodies merging, creates some form of bonding that can never be broken. Like many a song on this list it’s the yearning middle eight that lifts this song into true classic status. After two or three verses of philosophical musing over why the relationship didn’t work out on an intellectual level, Paul’s true feelings suddenly spill out into song as he asks over and over ‘why…?’, a haunting section filled with real bitterness and desperation. Even his thoughtful conclusion ‘because that’s not the way the world is baby’ is not enough to bring him peace.  The narrator pauses on his own realisation that fairy tale endings just don’t exist in real life, only in our dreams, and his painful realisation that life is not fair is one of the most moving passages of this entire book. Instrumentally, this is a welcome return to the acoustic-based songs Paul always excelled at and in fact rhythmically and melodically this song recalls Paul’s most famous acoustic song [98] The Sound Of Silence, recalling its sense of quiet stillness and walls that cannot be breached, alone again however intertwined he once felt. This is interesting because the themes of the two songs are similar though is at a more personal level – whether we ever truly ‘connect’ with another person and see life the way they do or whether we’re destined to be forever stuck in the dark, trying to fill in the ‘silences’ between people with inane chatter simply for the hell of it, believing we understand the concerns and motivations of other people in our lives when in truth we don’t. A thoughtful and classic track from a singer-songwriter at the peak of his powers, with a gently rolling melody that perfectly complements its lovely lyrics and typical attention to small details. This title track is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the record, if not Paul’s career as a whole, a whole implosion played at slow-speed.

[254a] When Numbers Get Serious tries to repeat the trick of combining the logical and emotional and how our heart blinds us to what our head tells us, but doesn’t approach anything like the same standards. My guess is Paul wrote this one for Arty after trying to fit his ‘character’, his love of logic and safety in numbers. This is perhaps the only song on the album that sounds worse solo than it did as a duet on bootleg, with a natural crossover space where two vocals should go. However, this being Paul, he tries to meet in the middle and find relevance to his own world too. A confusing tale about the significance of numbers in our emotional lives – from telephone numbers that let us get in touch with loved ones to bank details that enable us to live in relative comfort – the song doesn’t really know where to go past this speculation and indeed could have said as much in a single sentence. The tune is irritatingly bitty musically as well as lyrically, with a pounding drum beat entering the mix every so often for no good reason except to mask the alienating and extreme change of keys between the verses and choruses. In truth, this is Paul feeling his feet again as a songwriter, trying to remember the rules he can break for adventurism’s sake and the rules he simply has to adhere to because it’ll put his audience right off his work again (like that weird key change, for instance). However, even this song has its redeeming features, particularly the moving ending line that says, when all is said and done, cold statistics can’t hope to get the near the truth of why humans so feel the pain when ‘two become one’. After three minutes of supposed hilarity, it really catches you by surprise even after you know the album really well. The song sounded better, if a little flatter, in its first more emotional incarnation as [254b] ‘Shelter Of Your Arms’.

[255b] Maybe I Think Too Much is more proof of how badly Paul’s confidence had been damaged. There are two versions of this song on record and unlike, say, Neil Young’s repeats of the same track on the same album the difference isn’t the instrumentation so much as mood and atmosphere. Paul recorded version A, the second heard on this album, first but after hearing the playback he was afraid that he had treated a serious subject – that of seriousness itself and its part in our lives - too jovially. He went to the expense of re-arranging and completely re-recording the song to sound more serious and deep but, on hearing the playback, worried that he’d gone too far the other way and the song was now too ponderous and slow. Unable to bear the thought of recording the whole thing again, Paul decided to put both recordings on the album and hoped each would soften the failings of the other. The result is close: Version A (actually the second version heard on record) impresses because of its clear production and bouncy tempo, which work well with the clever and witty rhythms of the words. However Version B is more suited to the ‘heart’ of the song, with its slower tempo bringing out more of the song’s gorgeous melody and introspective reflection. The mood of this second slower go is better though as are the lyrics. Perhaps thinking of the media post-Carrie, Paul tells how the ‘smartest people of the world gathered to analyse our love affair and maybe unscramble us’. Paul knows, though, that he got there first, has thought long and hard about why things went wrong and if even he can’t find a solution after all the extra evidence he has then these outsiders have no chance. Oddly a second verse seems to imagine the death of his mother, Belle, though she actually died only in 2007 at the rtipe old age of ninety-seven (and father Loue won’t die until 1995, so its not like he just switched the gender of the parent). Maybe that’s fitting though for a song that’s all about getting too far ahead of yourself, of worrying needlessly when there’s nothing really to learn. As much as Paul goes through every single one of his photographs from the time of his relationship with Carrie, there are no clues there – it just didn’t work out. Maybe Paul Simon does think too much about his songs after all, as here he effectively gets his recording spot-on not once but twice!!

[256] Song About The Moon is another song borne from Paul’s frustration at One-Trick Pony’s failure. Suffering from songwriter’s block, he tried hard to get back to the basics of writing and decided to tell the world the simplest way of writing a song – by focussing on an image well known for its romantic associations (such as the moon) and easily understood by all. He was said to be overjoyed when his therapists idea to write about a common theme took off and this doo-wop song has become a bit of a belated hit nowadays, often heard on the radio over the last decade or so, but a decided flop when it came out as a single. I’m really not sure about it though: by Paul’s standards and especially this troubled LP it comes across as being smug. Furthermore, this song points out why writers should never follow a generic template but find one peculiar to their own talents. While this song is undeniably tuneful and pretty in places, ticking all the right boxes along the way, ‘Moon’ lacks its author’s usual flair and style and above all his originality. Anyone could have written this simple doo-wop ballad and that’s both this song’s strengths and its chief weakness, uniting us in its easily understandable imagery and boring us because we’ve heard this sort of thing so many times from different writers. Yes, this song surely does tap into the national psyche and well-worn ideas of love, but other than reminding us of this and easing Paul back into his writing career again, what is the point of it and including it on album? We  aren’t for the most part songwriters who need this hint and those who do have their own solutions. In retrospect, this is obviously a song written in the early days of Paul getting his courage and hunger for writing back again and its written for the author, not for us at all (just listen to the part that runs ‘Now do it! Write a song about the moon!’ which is either the narrator talking to himself or assuming that us listeners are all budding Paul Simon wannabes) – yet ultimately this song was released on record and has to be judged alongside the others here. Nice in parts, this song simply shows how low Paul’s confidence as a writer had fallen when he was reduced to writing songs as charming but as lightweight as this.

[255a] ‘Think Too Much’ is a victim of Paul’s need to weigh commercial instincts. Figuring that he needed to be ‘funny’ he gives us a song that rather spoofs his usual po-faced image. To the sound of a typewriter and dialling phone, Paul tells us his own misery memoir, that he had a childhood that was ‘mercifully brief’ and that he started thinking too much ‘aged twelve or thirteen’ (not long after meeting Arty…is this a coincidence?!?) worrying about God. Paul suddenly comes to some great insight here, realising that he ought to stop worrying so much about his beloved, to ‘stop trying to mould here’ before giving the whole thing as a joke and laughing ‘maybe blindfold her and take her away, yeah!’ This is, in its own right, a really clever commercial number that really should have been the album’s single over ‘Allergies’. It gives us everything Paul Simon represents with a great laugh-riot riff and as performance that’s lighter on its feet than this album’s other minor songs. However there’s no question that this song is less cohesively written than his second go, that it lacks the same emotional resonance and that everything you need to learn was already there on the other version. If the other version was paul thinking too much, then maybe this one is him not thinking as much as he should.  

[257] Train In The Distance revives Paul’s reputation almost single-handedly, though, being a classic song to rank amongst his very best, referring back once more to the overall ‘moving on’ theme of the album. Another song about the writer’s painful break-up (though, I suspect, with Peggy more directly than Carrie, with talk of their child together), it showcases Paul’s new philosophy about love – when it’s in the distance and you’re waiting for it it’s romantic, but up close-up its mechanical and ugly, never going quite where you want it to go and probably breaking down somewhere along the way too, just like a modern train. That sounds like a bit of a daft metaphor when written down on paper, but Paul strikes just the right note of ambiguity here to make the song work as poetic love song and philosophical metaphor. The hesitant, stumbling verses - which make the listener feel like they’re listening to an overheard conversation rather than hearing a fully developed song – also make ‘Train In The Distance’ sound like the most personal work Paul had written in a very very long time, especially with the narrator’s admittance that things haven’t quite worked out the way he’d planned and it is all at least partly his fault. The line ‘negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same’ is one of its author’s most perfect lines, reviving again this album’s theme of trying to work out exactly what love is and the thin line at which it all goes wrong from being something so right (this line was also – bizarrely – paraphrased for the title of a Paul Simon greatest hits compilation. Which is odd when you think about it because there are hardly any straightforward love songs in Paul Simon’s canon and pretty much nothing in the way of ‘negotiations’, but it’s a catchy title nonetheless). Paul is still trying to learn where things went wrong, re-telling the whole story for us – the way he shyly ‘tipped his heart’ (rather than his hat), the way she would withdraw and run away until they got married and ‘sure enough they have a son’. Like the scenes in the ‘One-Trick Pony’ film though it gets complicated – they clearly still have feelings for each other, ‘she cooks a meal or two’, but that spark of unconditional love they had for each other is now over, reduced to a string of compromises. Something that strong still has sparks though, confusing them both as they still feel a little of what they used to feel in between the ‘conversations hard and wild’. Paul reaches the end of the song hoping to have learned something, but after asking ‘what is the point of his story’ the closest he can come is the ‘thought that life could be better’ – for the couple apart who want to be together again and the couple together who drive each other so crazy they would rather be apart. This is a clever song though, made with no blame, both of them equal pawns in the cruel twists of fate as they try to work out whether to carry on on this journey or disembark now while they still can. The backing track meanwhile, with its lovely invocation of a gently chuffing train - complete with woos and aahs from multi-tracked Paul Simons - is memorable and original whilst being subtle enough not to detract from the depth of the song. Regret rarely sounds as achingly beautiful as it does here on one of Paul’s most multi-layered and satisfying pieces of music. Writing a song like this is one sure-fire way of curing writer’s block!

[258] Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War is an equally loved fan favourite, but for me it is a song that’s nearly as long and ponderous as its title. It’s also a little peculiar in its construction, perhaps because this was another early post-writer’s block experiment, dividing Paul Simon’s fans right down the middle as to whether its a great attempt at something new by one of America’s most pioneering wordsmiths or a boring filler track that just doesn’t quite work as well as it should. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in-between, as the song builds up an impressive atmosphere but is almost wilfully, obstinately dull. The song’s peculiar title was ‘borrowed’ from the caption to a photo in a book about the painter Magritte that Paul was reading at the time (the photo ‘borrowed’ for the inner lyric sheet), with the singer’s imagination tickled by that sentence’s implications of loneliness and time passing by, not to mention the sheer blatant realism of a caption for one of the world’s greatest surrealist painters. The song appears at first glance to be a straightforward biography, but instead of exploring what made the painter tick artistically Paul uses him as some sort of everyman figure, experiencing the thoughts of a generation. Oddly though its not his: the painter was born in 1898 and died in 1967, just missing the release of ‘Sgt Peppers’ by a fortnight (they seem like centuries apart events don’t they?) This means that during the golden doo-wop period Paul paints here, with the painter and his wife dancing to ‘The Penguins, The Moonglows and The Orioles (all real 1950s acts) they would have been in their fifties, which seems unlikely. My guess is that Paul was taking that very realistic starting point of the caption and weaving his own surrealistic painting over the top of it, something that in all likelihood never ever happened but is as real as any other reality. Elsewhere the pair do ordinary boring things like shopping for evening clothes and sharing belongings. Perhaps Paul is imagining the perfect boring world as the counterpart to the painter’s world of surrealism, rooting him in reality or perhaps he was just surprised at what a ‘normal’ couple the two were, posing with their dog and dressed smartly on their lawn. There shouldn’t, it feels, even be a photograph of Magritte rooting him in a reality as that makes him like the rest of us, boring and mortal. ‘Magritte’ is a mood piece that might actually be intended to be the aural equivalent of one of the French artist’s paintings: a compelling mix of finely observed and detailed realism and the head-scratchingly absurd, all jumbled together in one big bag because life often is boring and absurd, usually all at the same time. Beautifully constructed, but still woefully boring and tediously slow however admirable the idea or impressive the execution, Rene and Georgette is a brave stab at inventing something new that’s only a qualified success. The [258b] re-recording in 2018 is, remarkably, even worse.

[259] Cars Are Cars is yet another truly oddball track, jumping around without a pause between its fast and slow passages as Paul Simon literally changes gear on us several times throughout the song. It’s also another track on this album to study the duality between logic and emotion, wondering aloud why people (including the narrator) get so attached to what is only a hunk of metal used for getting from A to B that looks identical to several thousands of other vehicles on the roads. Paul makes it clear, though, that it’s our own memories, and associations we are really caring for rather than the car itself, although he questions just why such mass-produced objects should be used by people to help define their own individuality. Equally the ‘driving pace’ riff represents the kind of mass-produced fodder any number of artists were releasing in the 1980s, complete with a short and snappy one-syllable chorus pretty much unique in Paul’s usually detailed canon, but the nostalgic middle eights (there is no choruses as such and there are lots of these so perhaps I should call them ‘second verses’ rather than middle eights, but you know what I mean – they’re the slower bits) are more individual, celebrating the memories and associations as our vehicles ‘travel’ with us down life’s roads away from what the mass mainstream were thinking. Paul tells us that sometimes the homes, the things he’s meant to live in fill and decorate, were so short-lived they were ‘more like my car’ while his car felt more like a ‘home’ as he worked hard and proudly ‘polishing it’s chrome’. This unusual idea isn’t quite enough to sustain a full song, but at least this time round Paul whips things up with a spectacular production that isn’t exactly easy on the ear but is nevertheless memorable. Listen out for a spot of acting in the last verse, when Paul sings his lines about driving on the left and the right of the road panned so sharply in the left and right speakers that it sounds like someone is in the room with you. Perhaps the most curious thing about this song, though, is that it starts with so much of a bang but ends with a quiet whimper, closing with one of the shortest fade-outs in the history of music (or at least of the music on this list). Did the song get a flat tyre and Paul had to fade it down before it went wrong? Or was this intended as a segue into the next track that never quite worked out?

The last track, [260] The Late Great Johnny Ace, is what all of this album has been leading up to, a moving and poignant goodbye to John Lennon as if finally allowing the emotion that’s been quietly building up in the shadows throughout this often detached and logical-thinking album finally comes out into the open on a song about life being far far too short. Lennon’s death in New York in December 1980 came only two months after the premiere of the NY celebrating ‘One-Trick Pony’ and Paul himself was living at the Dakota at the time, hearing the sirens outside and wondering what it was. Yet unlike many of the OTT cash-ins that clogged up the charts in the wake of the singer’s death in December 1980, Paul makes it clear that he’s mourning the loss of potential and all the great things Johnny Rhythm would have gone on to do rather than simply name-checking a Beatle. Paul also makes his tribute personal by spending less time talking about the man himself than about what the Beatles meant for Paul personally by changing his life in 1964 (‘when I was living in London with the girl from the song before’ even though Paul couldn’t afford a car back then!) and the escape route the Beatles created for him, like pretty much all the artists on this list whether they acknowledge it or not. His response finds him stunned, like everyone else of his generation, as he ends up in a bar with a stranger who told him the news, unwilling to go home and move on with their lives (though, it seems, this part at least is fictional as after hearing the sirens he turned on the news in his room).This isn’t the first needless or senseless death though on a song about how people never seem to learn. The first verse also looks back at Lennon’s 1950s rock and roll namesake Johnny Ace, one of the first ‘rock stars’ to die a tragically early death when he took part in a drunken game of Russian Roulette that went catastrophically wrong. Paul, a big fan in his teenage fans, really did send off for his photograph – that’s it re-printed in the lyric booklet on both LP and CD. The lyrics of this song try to make sense of the madness and needlessness of both deaths, but in the end it can’t – Paul tries to look for answers butlike so much of this album he realises there aren’t any and that all he can do is keep their memories alive in tribute. Simple enough as ideas go, but the presence of an ominous horror-movie string arrangement from a then unknown whippers-anpper named Phillip Glass takes the song to a whole deeper level, balancing the rest of the song’s simple doo wop shuffle by showing the darker subconscious of the mind ever-lurking at poignant points throughout the song. The coda at the end, when the strings that have been surrounding the song like a vulture suddenly break and let out a mournful cry of heartbreak set against a relentless and nasty sounding riff before suddenly fading to silence, still stands as one of the most un-expected, shocking and downright moving moments in Paul’s back catalogue. Though the song itself isn’t one of Paul’s very strongest, it’s notable how much stronger this performance and arrangement is, powerful and shocking and invested with a creepy sense of shock in one of his best lead vocals.

If only Paul Simon had had the time to write two or three more classic songs to go with the half-dozen career peaks on display here, ‘Hearts and Bones’ would surely be remembered as a first-class album that would have other singer-songwriters of the period quaking in their boots. But even in diluted form, Hearts and Bones still has a rare emotional power, even more than other Paul Simon albums, and packs a punch like few other LPs of the period. Death, loss, betrayal, even allergies – the downside of life is all here and yet rather than simply being a merely depressing album this record also sounds as if Paul has moved on, having come to terms with what a crazy world full of ups and downs he lives in. Magical stuff from a singer-songwriter ever so nearly at the top of his game, this album beats ‘Graceland’ for me in every way – except, as usual, the timing, released to silence in a world in 1983 that had finally moved on from John Lennon, Carrie Fisher (the third Star Wars film not doing as well as the first two) and ultimately Paul Simon. He’s yesterday’s news again at this point, with only two flop records to show for eight years’ work, and yet the songs on this LP are timeless even when the production is not. Forgotten for years, neglected and the worst original seller Paul had until ‘The Capeman’ this album has always had a small but vocal fanbase trying to tell the world it’s the best thing he ever made. While I wouldn’t quite go that far, ‘Hearts and Bones’ is a lot better than it is ever given credit for being, with at least two near-perfect ballads that are amongst the best Paul ever, ever wrote. 


'The Paul Simon Songbook' (PS, 1965)

'Sounds Of Silence' (SG, 1966)

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (SG, 1970)

'Paul Simon' (PS, 1972)

'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' (PS, 1973)

'Angel Clare' (AG, 1973)

'Watermark' (AG, 1977)

‘Scissors Cut’ (AG, 1981)

'The Animals' Christmas' (AG, 1986)

'Songs From The Capeman' (PS, 1997)

'Stranger To Stranger' (PS, 2016)

Every Pre-Fame Recording 1957-1963 (Tom and Jerry, Jerry Landis, Artie Garr, True Taylor, The Mystics, Tico and The Triumphs, Paul Kane)

Live/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One: 1968-1988

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

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