Paul Simon reaches for the sacred in “Seven Psalms”

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Paul Simon reaches for the sacred in “Seven Psalms”

June 9, 2023 -

Paul Simon performs at Global Citizen Live in Central Park on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP). His most recent album is Seven Psalms.

Paul Simon performs at Global Citizen Live in Central Park on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP). His most recent album is Seven Psalms.

Paul Simon performs at Global Citizen Live in Central Park on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP). His most recent album is Seven Psalms.

Prior to the release of his latest album, folk legend Paul Simon released an announcement trailer for his first work in five years. In it, he describes a dream in January of 2019 where a voice told him to work on a piece of music titled Seven Psalms.

“I had no idea what that meant,” Simon said. “But gradually, information would come . . . . Words would come. I’d write them down and start to put it together.” Simon goes on to describe the experience of making the album as a journey of discovery, uncovering musical and lyrical dimensions that would transport him and the audience into a state where judgment could be let down and beholden to something greater.

“This is a journey for me to complete,” he says. “This whole piece is really an argument I’m having with myself about belief or not.”

Paul Simon’s spiritual lyricism

Simon is not a stranger to spiritual topics in his music.

Throughout a storied career, Simon has claimed that his music always held a spiritual dimension to it, which bears itself when surveying many of his classic songs.

“The Sound of Silence” holds lyrics that read as if they were written by an Old Testament prophet transported to the twentieth century. Spiritual undertones are found within the beautiful metaphor of 1986’s “Graceland,” in which Simon describes returning to the homeland of his musical ancestor, Elvis Presley, as an act of absolution for his broken heart.

In spite of the resonant spirituality reflected across his music, the musician has previously stated that he is not particularly religious. In a PBS interview in 2012, he expressed a sort of agnosticism when he explained, “I think of it more as spiritual feeling. It’s something that I recognize in myself and that I enjoy, and I don’t quite understand it”

However, Paul Simon’s latest release, Seven Psalms, brings up the matter of faith in such a pure and profound way that one may wonder whether or not the musician has moved away from his agnosticism into something more concrete.

For if Simon is still searching, then it makes the finished product seem like that much more of a miracle.

Seven Psalms is a piece of art that keeps with the musical tradition that King David set before him, full of expressions of praise, wonder, mystery, and doubt, all directed in prayer toward God.

Seven Psalms are psalms for today

Of particular note is the album’s structure.

Seven Psalms is intended to be experienced in one thirty-minute sitting. As a result, the album’s seven songs comprise one singular track, a move that stands in stark rejection of listeners’ habits to select specific songs for enjoyment, the product of the streaming age.

The first psalm, titled “The Lord,” weaves in and out as a recurring motif throughout the record, often serving as a musical and lyrical reassertion of the record’s themes. In this song, Simon describes the Lord by using metaphors fitted into our present context, as David did when he declared that “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23).

Here, Simon declares:

The Lord is my engineer
The Lord is the earth I ride on
The Lord is the face in the atmosphere
The path I slip and I slide on

Perhaps more bold is when Simon emphasizes God’s authority over nature, even in its destructive power.

Covid-virus is the Lord
The Lord is the ocean rising
The Lord is a terrible, swift sword
A simple truth surviving

Though metaphors as weighty as these may shock our sensibilities, we are forced to consider a God who wields natural disasters, conquering nations, and disease to turn his people’s hearts toward him.

Similar to his use of contemporary metaphors, Simon’s psalms will occasionally speak to current issues, namely our sharp dividing lines of thought and the refugee crisis.

In “My Professional Opinion,” Simon invites listeners to let go of their hostility toward differing views and carry their grievances to the shore in order to be washed away.

All that really matters
Is the one who became us
Anointed and gained us
With His opinion

Elsewhere, in “Trail of Volcanoes,” he paints a heartbreaking picture of refugees walking along devastated roads, along which we all hold equal position.

It seems to me, we’re all walking down the same road
To wherever it ends
The pity is the damage that’s done
Leaves so little time
to make amends

Indeed, for as much awe toward the known and unknown aspects of God exist within these psalms, Simon makes room for honest sorrows and doubt, as did King David.

“Your Forgiveness” teeters between wonder at the natural revelation of God (dip your hand in heaven’s waters, God’s imagination / All of life’s abundance in a drop of condensation) and expression of rational skepticism (I have my reasons to doubt / There is a case to be made).

“Sacred Harp” makes the ongoing refugee theme personal as it describes an account of Simon and his wife picking up a hitchhiking mother and son who were run out of their hometown for being different.

Still, perhaps the ultimate tragedy at the focus of these songs is only alluded to in passing in “Love is Like a Braid”:

I lived a life of pleasant sorrows
Until the real deal came
Broke me like a twig in a winter’s gale
Called me by my name

Simon’s confession seems, as is often the case with suffering, to force him to confront the nature of faith in a way that can only be experienced when all pillars of comfort are stripped away.

Paul Simon’s unwavering voice

The excellence of Seven Psalms is not solely found in its lyrical power, however.

As should be expected with Paul Simon, the music is full of vibrant, colorful texture, presented in a subtle and quiet way. At the age of eighty-one, Simon’s musical and vocal proficiency is remarkable. His guitar picking is as dynamic as it is soft, lilting and diverting from root melodies to create movement within these songs.

Though his voice doesn’t sound as fresh as it did in Graceland, it is full and unwavering, capable of carrying the rise-and-fall of emotion that these songs incite. These are not songs to hook you with catchy melodies; rather, they are songs for you to engage with, stepping into with an open, contemplative mind.

“The Sacred Harp” may possess the thesis statement behind the purpose of this album:

The sacred harp
That David played to make his
Songs of praise
We long to hear those strings
That set his heart ablaze

In one of the emotional crescendos of the album, Simon and his wife seem overwhelmed by “the thought that God turns music into bliss.”

Surely, this too was the sentiment that David shared and why he turned to the creation of music in moments of jubilee and grief alike.

Nick Cave and the sanctity of prayer

The musician and poet Nick Cave (who, coincidentally, released a collection of songs also titled Seven Psalms last year) wrote of prayer in an open letter during the pandemic: “The act of prayer asks of us something and by doing so delivers much in return—it asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are, devoid of [pretense] and affectation, and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self we confront the nature of our own existence.”

He is close but misses, crucially, that prayer goes beyond a conversation with our inner self. Rather, it is through our conversation with our Creator, whether we know or not that he is speaking to us, that we confront the nature of our own existence.

Our perceptions of life and its purpose are sanctified through prayer . This is not only a redemptive act for ourselves, but also the world around us as we begin to listen and be shaped by the voice that whispers softly to us.

To reach for the sacred

I have been listening to Seven Psalms regularly since its release nearly a month ago. As it corresponds to the length of my daily work commute, it has become a morning devotional of sorts for me.

It draws me back toward the Scriptures and helps me form my own prayers to God. Its presence feels otherworldly to me, and perhaps it is, for it certainly seems like its existence is a mystery to Simon himself. I can only wonder how God may be speaking to this musician through these songs, but I find them to be powerful tools in meditating on the character of God.

The psalms of David were simultaneously written by man yet inspired by God, a relationship that Paul Simon honors with this release, reminding us that we too possess the ability to continue in their tradition.

In prayer and worship, we reach out to the sacred and encounter God and continue to know him in deep familiarity.

May we allow the Lord to speak to us, and may we learn to better listen.

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