For BBC Radio 4 on Paul Simon’s new album and how ‘religion may be at its most powerful when it’s hiding in song or poem or psalm.’
‘The Lord is my record producer…’ sings Paul Simon, on his new album Seven Psalms.
‘The Lord is the music I hear… deep in the valley of elusive.’
Simon, now 81, and among the most influential modern songwriters, had thought he was long past making records.
But four years ago he woke up from a dream in which he saw himself working on a record called Seven Psalms. He scribbled it down in his notebook and over the coming nights kept waking to find his dreams still in dictation mode.
The most common phrase on the album that has emerged is ‘The Lord’. He sings of The Lord as ‘a puff of smoke…that disappears when the winds blow’ and as ‘a personal joke… my reflection in the window.’
These verses are as honest, moving and elusive as some of those original biblical Psalms, attributed to King David, seven hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth.
Many of those ancient psalms can transcend history, resonating centuries later, like on a 1970’s dance floor for pop group Boney M.
‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
We wept, when we remembered Zion…’
Taking a funeral service once, the family explained to me that the loved one they’d lost hadn’t been religious and they didn’t want anything, as they put it, ‘religiousy’. Then they asked, ‘Can we have The Lord is My Shepherd… ?’
They could. The 23rd Psalm being among the most resonant of all psalms.
‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, thought David, who was said to have been a shepherd. ‘The Lord is my GP’ as someone put it in a writing class I was leading recently. ‘The Lord is my bus driver,’ as someone else put it.
Psalms can transcend religion because they’re not always in deference to it. They can freight despair at history’s turns or at the latest divine disappearance. ‘You have put me in the depths of the Pit,’ reads one, ‘Your wrath lies heavy upon me.’
But they can also hold praise, something the writer Francis Spufford explored in his recent novel Light Perpetual.
‘Praise him in Parliament. Praise him in prisons and crack houses. Praise him at Pride. Praise him at Carnival. Praise him at Millwall, West Ham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs…’
Just when the language of faith seems burned out, it turns up in a new form. And religion may be at its most powerful when we don’t experience it as religion, when it’s hiding in song or poem or psalm.
Artists, like the rest of us, are usually musing on the ultimate, asking what we can do with these precious days… wondering about what happens when they come to an end.
‘For reasons I cannot explain,’ as Paul Simon sings on one of his most famous songs, ‘There’s some part of me wants to see/ Graceland…’