Back in 2016, Paul Simon mused in an NPR interview about stepping away from songwriting—to experience for the first time in 60 years what it feels like not to write songs. And then, in 2018, he wrapped up what was billed as his farewell tour.
But if Simon appeared to be hanging up his hat as a singer-songwriter, the muse was apparently not done with him. In January 2019, by his account, he had a dream announcing that he was working on a piece called Seven Psalms. Intrigued, he wrote down the phrase, and on subsequent nights found himself waking in the pre-dawn hours with additional words. Always a believer in chasing inspiration without necessarily understanding its source or meaning, Simon followed the dream instruction—and now we have the result.
It’s remarkable to say that even after all these decades of exploring all sorts of sonic and stylistic terrain, from Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water to the solo landmarks Still Crazy After All These Years, Graceland, and The Rhythm of the Saints, up through more recent gems like So Beautiful or So What and Stranger to Stranger, Seven Psalms is unlike any other Paul Simon creation.
For one thing, the album is a single composition in seven movements—33 minutes formatted as one track. It’s also nearly a solo spotlight, focused throughout on Simon’s voice and acoustic guitar—primarily a Gurian that has been a longstanding favorite. His fingerstyle guitar arrangements on the album, gorgeously captured by engineer and co-producer Kyle Crusham, are so detailed and melodic they could nearly stand as instrumental pieces.
Acoustic guitar has always been central to Simon’s music, and his late-era albums have included lovely guitar moments such as “Questions for the Angels” (So Beautiful or So What) and the instrumental “In the Garden of Edie” (Stranger to Stranger). But Seven Psalms sheds a new light on Simon’s considerable gifts as a guitarist, which have been somewhat overshadowed by the power and range of his songwriting.
The album opens with an Am–G–D/F# guitar figure in the movement called “The Lord” that returns, with varying lyrics, in the middle and toward the end. “The Lord is an engineer,” he sings. “The Lord is the earth I ride on.” As the piece unfolds, the metaphors point in many directions, from “The Covid virus is the Lord” and “The Lord is the ocean rising” to “The Lord is my record producer” and “The Lord is the music I hear.” Referencing the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, Seven Psalms is on one level a meditation on faith—maintaining it, questioning it—though the lyrics, not surprisingly given their origin in dreams, resist easy summary or interpretation.
While most of the album is softly meditative, Simon’s wry humor makes an appearance on “Professional Opinion,” a playful blues. “Good morning, Mr. Indignation/ Looks like you haven’t slept all night,” he sings, harmonizing with his voice with sliding double-stops up the neck. “In my professional opinion/ Go back to bed and turn off your light.”
Enhancing the atmosphere around Simon’s voice and guitar are touches of instruments such as gongs, bells, harmonium, frame drum, and bass harmonica played by Simon himself, plus a subtly employed chorus (the British group Voces8) and a chamber orchestra. Simon’s wife, Edie Brickell, joins for intimate duets toward the end on “The Sacred Harp” and “Wait.”
In the album’s final movement, he seems to address his apparent retirement in recent years. Over a spacious descending guitar line, he sings:
I’m not ready
I’m just packing my gear
My hand’s steady
My mind is still clear
At this juncture, after so many musical milestones over the last six decades, we can all be grateful that Simon remains on the path: still curious, still steady, and still surprising himself— and us—with what he discovers.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.