MUSIC | Two aging singer-songwriters ponder the divine
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At 81 and 78 respectively, the singer-songwriters Paul Simon and Bruce Cockburn have reached the stage at which they know they’ll be meeting their Maker sooner rather than later. That realization suffuses their latest releases with a subdued but unmistakable urgency.
Simon signifies his raised stakes by weaving the songs of Seven Psalms into a single 33-minute track, using the one called “The Lord” as thread. The message: Absorb these “psalms” as a piece and in this order or you’ll miss the point, which seems to be that our relationship to God has everything to do with our understanding of God and that arriving at that understanding can be the work of a lifetime.
Absorbing the 12 tracks of Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon in order makes sense too. If you hit “shuffle,” you’ll risk upsetting the album’s delicate balance by hearing the songs about a talented plus-size guitarist (“King of the Bolero”) and preventing eco-disaster (“To Keep the World We Know”) after you hear the climactic, album-ending songs about passing into eternity in a state of grace (“O Sun by Day O Moon by Night,” “When You Arrive”).
Seven Psalms ends with a passing-into-eternity song as well. It’s called “Wait” and winds down with Simon’s wife Edie Brickell singing “Heaven is beautiful / It’s almost like home / Children, get ready / It’s time to come home.” Like the rest of the suite, it has a stream-of-consciousness feel indicative of the lyrics’ origins in a series of Simon’s dreams.
Cockburn doesn’t so much achieve a flow as sustain an intimate folk-jazz mood. As he wrote in his 2014 memoir Rumours of Glory, he considers openness to the lower-case “spirit” a prerequisite to knowing God’s will and adhering to a creed as likely to hinder as to help. So he implores, confesses, and exhorts without naming names—like Jesus, for example. But the love that “trickles down like honey” in “Into the Now” and the commandment to love everyone in “Orders” clearly originate in the divine.
Simon doesn’t so much implore, confess, or exhort as edge up to a cliff and ponder his next move. Forty years ago in the song “Hearts and Bones,” he referred to himself as a “wandering Jew.” Fifty years ago, he featured the Jessy Dixon Singers singing “Jesus Is the Answer” in his shows. He doesn’t name Jesus this time, but he comes close. “All that really matters,” he sings near the end of “My Professional Opinion,” “Is the one who became us / Anointed and gamed us / With His opinions.” Clarity followed by ambiguity—dreams can be like that.
So can seeing through a glass darkly, which, perhaps more intently now than ever, is what Simon and Cockburn are trying to do.