This week I have been mostly listening to Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon. I can’t believe I’ve spent so much time listening to Graceland and not this. This album is so brilliant. It is Paul Simon at his best, describing both the union and division of two humans with only a few shit lyrics and one irritating song (‘Cars are Cars’, jesus). As the title suggests the album is very much about how the physical interplays with the emotional, touching upon the division between the body and the mind in ‘Think Too Much’ (parts a and b). I love the way the album is nostalgic and optimistic and melancholy all at once. It is maybe a break up record but maybe a record about falling in love. One great thing in Paul Simon’s songwriting is the way he uses the word heart so that is what I’m going to write about today.
The more you think about hearts, the stranger and more alien they seem – beating in your chest, signifying everything and nothing. They have become central to our language and crucial in any discussion about love. I like it when artists use clichéd and obvious tropes like ‘the heart’ with a delicacy, care and feeling that invests that trope with something more. In Hearts and Bones Simon elevates the heart from an empty pop song word (i.e. “Unbreak my heart”) in to a physical, emotional and intellectual signifier.
I suppose at the centre of all these hundreds of years of literature and song about our hearts is the mystery of why our hearts feel the way they do. I’m sure there is an explanation, a surge of blood that results in the fast beats, the skips, the strange sensation in your chest when someone you love enters or exits a room. But such an explanation is unsatisfactory to the romantic sensibility. Romantic sensibilities prefer sentimental and poetic lyrics and that’s what Paul Simon gives us.
The title track of Hearts and Bones, describes a trip that two lovers embark upon and its place in the story of their relationship. The repeated combination of those two words “hearts and bones” is real nice, making me think about love and death, romance and deserts I guess. But what really gets me in the solar plexus is the lyric
“You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won’t come undone”
I think its so beautiful, nestling perfectly inside the melody of the song, which feels kind of wandering, just like in the song ‘Graceland’, but also comfortingly insistent and repetitive. It also reminds me of my favourite ever bit of Chaucer which is in the poem Troilus and Crisyde, right at the bit where they have sex!
“And as aboute a tree, with many a twiste,
Bitrent and wryth the sote wode-binde,
Gan eche of hem in armes other winde.”
The beautiful, tangled image is also echoed in the other best song on this album “Rene and Georgette Magritte and their dog after the war”.
“When they wake up they will find
All their personal belongings
Intertwining imagery is the perfect expression of a relationship. Two people can’t merge into one because humans can’t eliminate their boundaries like that. Relationships are about about twisting all of you in and around someone else. I think that this concept is central to Paul Simon’s power as a lyricist. My favourite Paul Simon lyric is actually in the song Graceland.
“She said losing love is like a window in your heart.
Everybody sees your blown apart.
Everybody sees the wind blow”
All the best poetry (in my opinion) makes the familiar strange so that it can be seen again as if for the first time and I think this lyric makes the overused concept of ‘heartbreak’ new and fresh again every time you hear it. It expresses the openness and vulnerability of heartbreak. I also think the use of the phrase “losing love” is really important. Often in his songs Paul Simon refrains from using that kind of blaming or bitter language that makes break up songs so painful. There is an acceptance of the fluctuation that hearts are liable to that make his songs so happy and sad at the same time. There’s not so much blame or violence. Love was lost and the wind blows.
But back to Hearts and Bones. Seriously, what a great album. That great ‘Graceland’ lyric is prefigured in ‘Rene and Georgette’ when Simon talks about the “cabinet cold of their hearts.” The whole concept of this weird song is that Rene Magritte the surrealist and his wife secretly really like 50’s doo wop. This lyric speaks of the heart’s capacity for secrets. I love thinking about the heart as a secret and mysterious place. Even though its not. Secrets are kept in the head. But its really nice to think about a little door in the heart with desires in.
What I think I find so compelling about Paul Simon is that he is by no means perfect. He is kind of cheesy and sometimes his lyrics seem hastily cobbled together (e.g. “Here’s my address, Here’s my phone, Please don’t give it to some madman” in ‘When Numbers get Serious.’ What does that even mean Paul?). But the atmosphere that he creates, with his melodies and lyrics can be so evocative. Occasional lyrics just jump out at you. I also think he is a great songwriter because he is not overly present in his songs. They are incredibly personal and if you want (and I confess I do want) you can get pretty caught up in the intrigue of it all (do you know lots of his songs are about Carrie Fischer? Princess bloody Leia!). But I don’t feel like Paul Simon really has an image in the way a lot of pop stars do. This might be just me not doing enough research but really Paul Simon just seems like a guy who’s been in love and had a kid or two. He’s not a poet or a protester or an outlaw. He’s just some guy with a heart like anyone else. And I think that is maybe why I like him so much.
A perfect example of Paul Simon being at once terrible and amazing is the song ‘Song About the Moon’ which is track 5 on this totally brilliant album. In a way I hate this song because I think its really lazy. He was probably sitting there thinking “oh I’d love to write a song about the moon but its just not coming. Oh I know I’ll just get all meta about this!” So he talks about writing a song about the moon and about the heart and about the face and the human race and concludes that its all the same thing. Which its not. But then the format of the song throws up some really really nice lyrics, the best being “If you want to write a song about the heart and its ever longing for a counterpart.” The melody and the lyrics are just absolutely perfect here. It is so neat and satisfying that it makes me want to listen to the song over and over and then I secretly (well not so secretly actually, I tend to sing along loudly to Paul Simon even when in public) really really enjoy it. And then I start thinking that maybe the moon and the heart are kind of similar. And even though I’m doing all the work I’m still grateful to Paul for bringing the issue to my attention.
Paul Simon has been the soundtrack to my week and I’ve been thinking about peoples hearts and their bones and them being intertwined and them being a lot like the moon. And its been a lot of fun, so thanks Paul.