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In my life, Hearts and Bones was as momentous as Bridge Over Troubled Water was in 1970. I felt it was a masterpiece then, and I still do.
When it came out, I was single and in the midst of romantic turmoil, and the title song spoke to me in a way few songs ever had, before or since. It did that thing that music can do – it attached itself to emotional moments of my life so deeply that the attachment never faded. It always brings me back to that moment. It’s the magic of song.
And so I have my own personal reasons why I love this album. But decades later, its magic has not worn off. It is a masterpiece, both in terms of songwriting, and also of record-making.
Simon told me that he’d failed on Hearts and Bones — that he’d written good songs but made bad records out of them.
Simon told me in interviews years later that he felt he’d failed on Hearts and Bones – not the songwriting, the production. That he’d written good songs but made bad records out of them. It was a belief that led him to Graceland. He was sure that “nobody was listening,” anymore, so he went to Africa on a musical adventure. From then on, he decided, he would make the track first, and write the song to the track, ensuring the record would sound good by making the record first, before writing the song.
So Hearts and Bones is the last chapter in his life-story of Simon writing the way he always wrote – with voice and guitar. And let’s face it – few people in history have done more with voice and a guitar than this guy.
And the fact remains that the production of Hearts and Bones is inventive, inspired, and intimate. The tender rhythmic beds of percussion hint at the polyrhythms to come, but are wed delicately here with warm textures of guitars, melodic bass, vocal harmonies, and rich keyboard parts, creating a sound that is deeply heartfelt and unique.
Of all the serious songwriters, he’s one of the funniest. To explore his own self-obsessed tendency to think too much, he wrote here not one but two songs with the same title, “Think Too Much.” Who does that? Simon did, and it’s wondrous: The first song is breezy and lightweight. But the sequel (“Think Too Much, B.”) is profound, and haunting. Musically it’s elemental, revolving around only two chords, a major and a minor, two sides of the same coin, with a poignant and passionate melody locked in with the groove. It’s a seed of Graceland, the soulful rhythm inspiring the discovery of words both funny and serious.
Like scenes in a movie, we cut to the final verse, his father on his death bed, informing Paul that no amount of worry – of thinking too much – will help. “He said there’s not much more that you can do/go on and get some rest/and yeah, maybe I think too much.” It’s the resignation of the ages, the sober understanding that reality persists, despite all the worry in the world. Yet it’s linked so organically to the music that the answer is evident: beyond thinking, beyond intellect, is the source. The music.
“Rene and Georgette Magritte (With Their Dog after the War)” is more remarkable and essential Simon, another depiction of an artist in the world, weaving together a dimensional portrait of the surrealist in New York with a stunning, complex melody.
He transformed the unwieldy title into a single melodic phrase of organic grace. Around that core, he allowed the story to unfold, sparked by a measure of mystery: Magritte’s secret passion for great doo-wop groups of the ’50s with a mesmeric recitation of their arcane names (“The Penguins, the Moonglows, The Orioles, the Five Satins…”), enriched by the deep resonance of the voices of the actual Harptones singing. It’s the height of the art: brilliant songwriting, ingenious production and passionate performance all combined.
He told me that he felt none of his songs were perfect, but some closer than others. I brought up “Hearts and Bones.” He thought for a moment, and said, “Yeah. It’s close.”
It starts with a gentle but intoxicating percussion groove provided by the great Airto Moreira locked to Paul’s ascending acoustic guitar riff in E major, the essential guitar key. This is Paul in his element. The lyric starts like an old joke: “One and one-half Wandering Jews free to wander wherever they choose…,” a reference to his brief marriage to Carrie Fisher. But levity, again, is a bridge he builds to deeper stuff. Time becomes disjointed, like in memories or dreams, and a cinematic montage of a marriage and its moments proceeds.
At the end the very guy who told us we were all slip-sliding away, give us his rawest and most human expression of love lasting :
“You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won’t come undone
Hearts and bones…”
The musicianship throughout is impeccable, played by three greats who are already gone, Jeff Porcaro, Richard Tee, and Eric Gale. The great Steve Gadd, who Simon called “the great drummer of his generation,” is also here.
Great musical moments abound: Al DiMeola’s astoundingly fast, furious but fluid guitar solo on “Allergies,” Phillip Glass’s plaintive orchestral coda to “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” Airto Moreira’s percussion throughout, and Simon’s own exquisite acoustic guitar work.
We also have here one of Simon’s most beautiful and affirmative songs, “Train In The Distance.” Wrapped around an evocation of the classic “Mystery Train,” Simon’s own mystery train is unseen; it’s a sound – far off in the distance – that unites us like our ancestors around a fire, or kids around radios and record players.
“Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance,” he sings, and then, in a rare instance of the songwriter stepping outside of his song to comment on it, he wraps up this song and the entire collection with this understanding: “the thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
It’s hope we get from music like this
That in this life we humans get our hearts and our bones consistently trampled. Yet hope remains, and it’s hope we get from music like this, music which still makes us smile and think and sing along , even after all these years. Hearts and Bones stands along with all his other albums solo and with Garfunkel, forever powerful and beloved.