By Andrew Goddard
In his already highly acclaimed new album, Seven Psalms, Paul Simon, born into a New York Jewish family, has brought to the fore his wrestling with questions of faith and doubt. This focus should, however, not be a total surprise given features of his life, music, and lyrics in the last nearly six decades.
One of Simon’s first breakthroughs came when he was a folk singer touring English clubs back in 1965 and his friend Judith Piepe, a High Anglican involved in pioneering work with London’s homeless based at St. Anne’s, Soho, got him a slot on the BBC’s religious program Five to Ten, on which she was a presenter. One of the songs he sang — “Bleeker Street” — was already drawing on biblical (“hides the shepherd from the sheep,” “thirty dollars pays your rent,” “It’s a long road to Canaan”) and ecclesial (“holy, holy is his sacrament”) imagery. Another popular early song, “A Church is Burning,” had similar features (“Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying, ‘You can burn down my churches but I shall be free’”) as it protested against the KKK’s torching of Black churches.
His first album with Art Garfunkel (Wednesday Morning, 3AM, 1964) included “Benedictus” and the old classic “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Their later albums also often had at least one song with some explicit religious reference, whether Simon’s reworking of the Sermon on the Mount and the cry of desolation in “Blessed” on Sounds of Silence (1966) or their version of “Silent Night” on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966). These songs are less-known, but “Mrs. Robinson” from the soundtrack of The Graduate and on Bookends (1968) not only throws in the line “Heaven holds a place for those who pray” but is said to have been the first pop song to include “Jesus” in the lyric (“Jesus loves you more than will you know,” a line that Simon included “for no particular reason, I had nothing in mind”), leading some radio stations to refuse to play it and Frank Sinatra to replace “Jesus” with “Jilly” in his cover version.
The title of Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970), came from Simon listening to the old spiritual “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” (based on John 11 and the Exodus) as sung by the Swan Silvertones in 1959, in which Claude Jeter improvised “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” Its music is inspired by that gospel music tradition and draws on a chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion known to many as the setting for “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”
Simon would return to this much more extensively near the start of his solo career in his classic “American Tune” (on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, 1973). Stunningly revisited recently by African American singer Rhiannon Giddens (including changing the words fittingly to “We didn’t come here on the Mayflower, / We came on a ship in a blood-red moon”), this was a lament over the state of his home country, originally in the context of Vietnam and Nixon. Much less-known is another powerful haunting lament, this time over Jerusalem (“Silent Eyes”) found on his next solo album, Still Crazy After All These Years (1975). On that album he also directly addresses God in “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” when he sings
Here I am, Lord
I’m knocking at Your place of business
And I know, I ain’t got no business here
But You said if I ever got so low
I was busted
You could be trusted
Here his reflections on loss (“most folks’ lives, / Oh, they stumble, Lord, they fall”), which recur throughout his writing, are joined to signs of faith and hope as expressed in “Bridge” and in the title song of his most famous album — Graceland (1986) — which includes the line: “I’ve reason to believe / We all will be received / in Graceland.” In “Born at the Right Time” on his next album, The Rhythm of the Saints (1990), he opens by alluding to Moses (“Down among the reeds and rushes / a baby boy was found”) while the regularly repeated hope-filled title line — despite a world of loneliness, lies, fear, and violence — is connected to the life of the church and a global message (“Born at the instant / the church bells chime / And the whole world whispering / Born at the right time”), which for Christian listeners may also whisper Galatians 4:4 — “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.”
It was with his So Beautiful or So What, released in 2011, that more people began to really focus on Simon’s engagement with questions of faith and spirituality. He acknowledged in its promotional video that
There seems to be a theme in the album. Not intentional. I noticed it after like the first five or six songs. That God seemed to be in like four or five of them. And it’s funny, because for somebody who’s not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs. In fact, after a show I did, about a year and a half ago, and Paul McCartney was there and he came back after the show and he said “Aren’t you Jewish?”
One of its songs, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” draws its title from a 1941 sermon of the preacher and gospel singer, the Reverend J.M. Gates, parts of which are heard in the song. Other tracks include “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” and “The Afterlife,” of which he commented, as if schooled by Job or Romans 3:19, “By the time you get up to speak to God and you actually get there, there’s no question that you could possibly have that could have any relevance.”
As Simon noted in another interview around this time, “I wondered whether there was a subconscious theme that I was tapping into. I have used Christian symbols and imagery before in songs. It’s very strongly evocative, so it may just be coincidence — but it may not be.” Unsurprisingly, a number of (particularly but not only Christian) reviewers (such as Cathleen Falsani, Jonathan Fitzgerald, Kristin Garrett in Christianity Today, Kim Lawton in The Christian Century and Christian Today, quoting evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington) and interviewers (e.g., Paul Zollo and Religion and Ethics News Weekly) explored these themes, as did others subsequently, such as Marc Barnes.
It was also at this time that Paul Simon talked about speaking with the Dalai Lama (back in 2005 and later publicized further in 2016) and revealed how in 2004, after reading David Brooks’s New York Times profile of leading English evangelical Anglican John Stott, he decided he wanted to meet Stott. A friend connected them and Simon offered to take Stott out for dinner when he was in London, but was instead invited by him to his flat for tea and biscuits. Speaking of the meeting, Simon recalled (6:09 in video):
I’d say we spent two or three hours there. I talked about everything that was on my mind about things that seemed illogical, and he talked about why he had come to his conclusions. I think both of us enjoyed the conversation immensely. I left there feeling that I had a greater understanding of where belief comes from when it doesn’t have an agenda.
It didn’t change my way of thinking, but what I liked about it was that we were able to talk and have a dialogue. I was interested in speaking to the John Stotts of the world and other evangelicals because my instinct was that the animosity is not as deep as being depicted in the media, and anecdotally speaking, I have found that that’s the truth.
It is against the backdrop of elements such as these in his biography that, in a dream on January 15 in 2019, the anniversary of his father’s death, Simon was told, much to his surprise and puzzlement, “You’re working on a piece called Seven Psalms.” He has described how he got up and wrote this down: “I wasn’t writing anything at the time, nor was I thinking about writing anything.” He thought,
I’m not sure I even know what a psalm is. So I went to the Bible, and I looked at Psalms, and said ‘well since I don’t know what it is, and it’s not really my idea — something in a dream, or somebody in a dream, said “you’re going to do this” — well then, bring it on.
Over the next year the music came to him (he regularly writes lyrics after the music) and then, several times a week, he found he was again being woken in the early hours of the morning, this time with words and phrases that he would also write down. Over time, working with his wife, Edie Brickell, and the group VOCES8, and struggling with his sudden hearing loss, these words were woven together with the earlier music and led to the creation of the album that was released in May and is available at no cost here. There is also a film, In Restless Dreams, telling more of the story of the album’s creation in the context of Simon’s career, which will premiere in September at the Toronto Film Festival. Oscar-winning Christian artist, Charlie Mackesy, who has worked in the past with Alpha, has also created “seven original sketches — one for each “psalm” — presenting the album as re-imagined through his art” which will be exhibited in London in September.
Rather than a standard album comprising a collection of songs, Seven Psalms is a single piece of music in seven movements. It is Simon and his guitar (so similar to his first 1965 album, The Paul Simon Songbook), no band, but the carefully, often subtly, placed and powerfully emotive use of chimes, bells, gongs, etc. It is meant to be listened to as a whole (Simon has not permitted Spotify or other services to separate each track) and lasts 33 minutes, a length that Simon has explained, in an interview with MOJO, has religious significance as the traditional age of Christ at his death and the number of uses of God in the first creation account. (It also reflects the speed of vinyl LPs.)
It is, he insists, not primarily about approaching death, as some have thought, given its creation as he entered his ninth decade. Rather, it is “an argument I’m having with myself about belief or not.” This argument has drawn in many reviewers, such as Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker and John Lewis in Uncut (“He’s the secular Jew who has made some of the greatest pieces of Christian pop music; the non-believer whose lyrics are obsessed with faith”) as well as writers for a Christian audience, such as Derek Walker, Nathan Allen, and Andrew Rycroft. The power of that argument can really only be understood by immersing oneself in the evocative music. Simon has spoken about how “the spirituality is mostly expressed in the music, even though the words are on the same subject. But the unspoken … the conversation without words is the deeper spirituality for me … something that I hear and feel,” and words and their movement as a whole. Nevertheless, focusing on the lyrics, some of the key theological themes and reflections on spirituality found in the album can be highlighted.
The opening piece draws us immediately to the subject of the biblical psalms — “The Lord.” Translating the language of the best-known of all the Psalms (Psalm 23) to his own vocation, Simon sings of the Lord not as his Shepherd (although the opening words speak of him thinking about “the great migration, / Noon and night they leave the flock”) but as “my engineer.” The Lord is also identified with aspects of creation (“the earth I ride on,” “a virgin forest”) and those who care for it (“a forest ranger”), as well as, in one of his many powerful images, “a meal for the poorest of the poor, a welcome door to the stranger.” This is not, however, an all-positive and comforting picture of the Lord. Simon also (like the biblical psalm-writers) has the sense of God as judge, one who can be dangerous, one to be feared. Shockingly, his identification of God extends to the global threats we face (“The COVID virus is the Lord, / The Lord is the ocean rising”) and, echoing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” itself echoing Isaiah 27:1, we are reminded that “The Lord is a terrible swift sword” (not, as an early internet attempt to reproduce the lyrics claimed, “a Taylor Swift song”).
Simon then turns — in “Love Is Like a Braid” — to focus on the greatest of the three theological virtues, which his earlier songs also often explored and which “The Lord” has already spoken of in its declaration that “nothing dies of too much love.” The argument about whether to believe is powerfully captured when, as so often in life, it arises not so much in response to an intellectual problem but to an existential crisis. Drawing on Isaianic and other biblical language, and echoing his earlier line in “Silent Eyes” when weeping Jerusalem “calls my name,” Simon sings:
I lived a life of pleasant sorrows
Until the real deal came
Broke me like a twig in a winter gale
Called me by my name
And in that time of prayer and waiting
Where doubt and reason dwell
A jury sat deliberating
All is lost or all is well
Concluding with the recognition of the world’s beauty and pain (“The garden keeps a rose and a thorn”) and the observation that “Once the choice is made / All that’s left is / Mending what was torn / Love is like a braid,” this leads, with a change in tempo, into the humorous and playful “My Professional Opinion.” Although Simon confesses “I’m not a doctor or a preacher,” in quasi-baptismal imagery, he describes how “everyone’s naked / there’s nothing to hide” and repeats how he’s “Gonna carry my grievances / down to the shore / Wash them away in the tumbling tide.” It ends, before his first reprise of “The Lord,” with a seeming Christological confession that
All that really matters
Is the one who became us
Anointed and gained [or is it, “gamed”?] us
With his opinions
The central song of the seven turns, at last, to address God directly. It is simply and significantly titled “Your Forgiveness.” Here, in that argument with himself about “belief or not,” and facing his own mortality, we have the honest confession “I, I have my reasons to doubt.” But this uncertainty appears alongside another, humble confession concerning himself: “I, the last in the line / Hoping the gates won’t be closed / Before your forgiveness.” And ultimately it would seem it is that hope and faith, faced with the recognition of the need for forgiveness, that win out. Rather than concluding it is simply “two billion heartbeats and out,” he adds the question “Or does it all begin again?” before closing the song on its repeated refrain, inviting us to reach out for the water of life: “Dip your hand in heaven’s waters / God’s imagination / Dip your hand in heaven’s waters / All of life’s abundance in a / Drop of condensation.” Numerologists may find it of interest that the call to “dip” appears seven times and the references to “God’s imagination” and “life’s abundance” three times.
The eschatological imagery of the line at heaven’s gate hoping for God’s forgiveness is reworked in the shortest piece, “Trail of Volcanoes.” Here, contrasting his youthful travels with the current migrant crisis, Simon captures the universality of the human condition — “We’re all walking down / The same road / To wherever it ends” — and sums up its tragedy and our inability to secure redemption because “The pity is / The damage that’s done / Leaves so little time / For amends.”
The penultimate movement (“The Sacred Harp”) is Simon’s favorite from the album, and he told Malcolm Gladwell that he would “get a lot of pleasure” if somebody turned it into a hymn and it was sung in a church. It sees him joined, for the first time on an album, by his wife, Edie Brickell. As in many of his classic songs, from “Homeward Bound” and “America” with Art Garfunkel to his solo recordings of Hearts and Bones and Graceland, he vividly narrates characters on a journey. Here it is a woman and her boy with “voices in his head,” both “refugees of sorts” escaping a hostile home town (“They don’t like different there / They would have mowed us down”).
Simon has described them as people who “appear to be broken” but “really they are seekers of spiritual bliss.” The “Sacred Harp” of the title is, of course, yet another biblical reference: the harp that could ease even King Saul’s troubled mind. It is the one “that David played to make his songs of praise” and, in the midst of the challenges and pains of our journey through life, we too yearn for more: “We long to hear those strings / That set his heart ablaze / The ringing strings / The thought that God turns music / Into bliss.”
Before the final song, Simon once again reprises “The Lord.” This time he opens not with a threefold naming of the Lord, as in every other of the album’s total of 12 (is that number an accident?), but with multiple professions of the Lord’s identity. Here there are only two references to “the Lord,” both connected to more ephemeral and frivolous images (“The Lord is a puff of smoke … / The Lord is my personal joke / My reflection in the window”). He then places these depictions of divinity (are they an articulation more of the unbelief with which he wrestles?) alongside a vision of humanity and some of our challenging ultimate questions as we wrestle with faith and doubt and the complexity of who we are as human beings — “I’ve been thinking about our troubled nature, our benediction and our curse. Are we all just trial and error, one of a billion in the universe?” — before concluding with new descriptors. The Lord is no longer only “my engineer” but, relating him even more to Simon’s gifts and lifelong vocation, The Lord is also “my record producer” and “the music I hear.” And, finally, repeating the engineer image but moving from sound to travel and introducing new metaphors, “The Lord is my engineer. The Lord is the train I ride on. The Lord is the coast, the coast is clear. The path I slip and I slide on.” Might this final triad even be alluding, for those with ears to hear, to his three songs “Train in the Distance” (“Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it’s true”), “The Coast” (“This is a lonely life, sorrows everywhere you turn … If I have weaknesses don’t let them blind me now”) and “Slip Slidin’ Away” (“God only knows. God makes his plan. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man”)?
Finally, as we approach the end, we arrive at “Wait,” a five-times recurring plea throughout the seventh psalm, recalling the earlier reference to a time of “prayer and waiting” but now in the face not of tragedy but of death. “Wait” because “I’m not ready,” even though “I want to believe in a dreamless transition” and “I don’t want to be near my dark intuition.” But, rather than the repeated request to delay being granted, in the haunting voice of Brickell, the chorus and conclusion offer a fresh perspective on temporal life and an enticing invitation to venture beyond it to where we ultimately belong:
Life is a meteor
Let your eyes roam
Heaven is beautiful
It’s almost like home
Children, get ready
It’s time to come home.
Having begun not knowing what a Psalm was, Simon has crafted an astounding album of seven contemporary psalms. Like the biblical psalms, these wrestle with suffering, death, and doubt, speak to people who (like him) are “not religious,” present sometimes challenging metaphors and images of the Lord as they open theological questions, look for forgiveness, and lift our eyes beyond the immediate to something transcendent. They will also, as Simon acknowledges and welcomes, doubtless generate multiple interpretations over coming years. Fittingly, the album ends with Simon and his wife beautifully and movingly harmonizing a final, heartfelt “Amen.”
I am grateful to Ben Ealovega for conversations and insights that helped shape these reflections.