To say that Harper Simon has had a curious, somewhat charmed life is an understatement. The son of Paul Simon and Peggy Harper (“silver girl” in the quite famous song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water), he’s spent many of his 40 years doing exotic, alien things like appearing on Sesame Street, writing music for Abel Ferrara movies, playing in a Nick Drake tribute band with Graham Coxon and, a couple of years ago, delivering his first solo album with the help of a lineup of the greatest surviving Nashville session players available.
It’s been a life lived just outside the spotlight, though – while he’s collaborated with and played alongside some legitimate greats, Simon himself has often been cast as something of an enthusiastic supporting player rather than the star of the show. It goes almost without saying that it’s been a life lived in a much larger shadow than that.
Division Street is Simon’s sweet step into the twilight sun. It avoids the countrified basics of his mixed debut, instead offering traditional rock n roll instrumentation fed through a sieve of alt-rock production and, most pointedly, held together by fantastically intricate yet clear, often overwhelmingly gorgeous, uplifting songwriting.
Take, for instance, the irresistible single ‘Bonnie Bray’ in which Simon uses his father’s eye for lyrical detail (“I thought our golden moment was prearranged/I tried to call you but your number had changed” or the vivid, casual “Your jacket over your shoulder made you look like Patti Smith”) and spins a yarn of near-miss love with shimmer-pop backing and a golden whisper of a voice. It’s wonderful.
His detailed melodies and words match Tom Rothrock’s equally intensive production style but this is where we hit a roadblock that is just gonna be impassable for some – Rothrock, best known for his work with Elliott Smith, has certainly not shied away from bringing out the Smith-like tendencies in Simon. In fact, you might go so far as to say that he’s a straight-out Smith copyist. Not what you were expecting perhaps, but there it is.
A song like ‘Veterans Parade’, with a title that instantly conjures Smith’s ‘Rose Parade’ and contains lyrics like “Everyone wants to play the game/Everyone’s a name around here” that call to mind the kind of weary analysis Smith got so right so often, can’t shrug the ghost of the legendary artist.
Same goes for the dirgey title track, an exercise in Smith-adelia that’s saved by a maddeningly engaging piano line and the sweet kiss off of “ You used to be a joy to know / that’s what your friends all say / they love you anyway”.
The fact is that the guy sings and plays like Elliott Smith – there’s no escaping that – but while purists may cry foul they’ll be missing out on a talent capable of some pretty wonderful feats of atmospheric songwriting.
On ‘99’ you’ll hear a little more Evan Dando than anyone else (it’s also home to the obligatory Big Star namecheck required from artists of this ilk) and on ‘Dixie Cleopatra’ you’ll get an unshakeable early Nineties MTV vibe that should, all things being equal, bring a generous smile to your lips.
Best avoided though is Simon’s only acoustic number – the intricate finger pick of ‘Just Like St Teresa’ – a song so indebted to his Dad that you’d be surprised if the notoriously miserable sod doesn’t sue his own son over it. It’s a low point but, as with all the other questionable moments here that might niggle you – you’ll find that you enjoy it on a sonic level nonetheless. While maybe not imbued with the genuine tragedy of certain artists, his voice is nonetheless a tender, tuneful thing.
So then, Simon may have shuffled whisperingly on to the centre of the stage, and while he’s undoubtedly a master craftsman when it comes to his art, he’s still using a couple of musical crutches to keep him standing while he finds his feet. Though it may be impossible to listen without prejudice...come back and criticize when YOU’VE been on Sesame Street, eh?
7Matthew Slaughter's Score