Grandpa Rock Review: Paul Simon and Phil Keaggy

This summer I realized my album buying habits really reflect my age. I am only in my mid-30's but I am essentially a Grandpa Rock enthusiast. When given the opportunity to buy new music (which I still buy on CD and then possibly vinyl) I bypassed the most lauded Dad Rock album of the year (Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool) and went straight for the Grandpa Rock Royalty of Paul Simon's latest (and perhaps last) Stranger to Stranger. Added to this, I had been eagerly waiting since the end of last year for Phil Keaggy to release a new album, which got funded on Kickstarter. Those of us who backed the album, which is now called All At Once, got to download it earlier in the summer, but the official release came in September.

These are the albums I was most anticipating: 2 rock legends from the 60's and 70's, one an American icon and possible Greatest Living Songwriter, the other a pillar of the Jesus Music era and one of the world's most renowned guitar players.

There were plenty of other albums I wanted to listen to, some of which were only available to stream, so I have not gotten to them yet. But these albums were the ones I purchased first and that was no accident. If you count both vinyl and CD's combined, I own as many Simon and Keaggy albums than about anybody else in my collection. Only Rich Mullins, Sufjan Stevens, and Matt Redman would be higher on the list.

But what music have Simon and Keaggy given us with their new work? Is it really music for grandpas? Here is the quickest review I can give of both these works: there really are not any surprises on Stranger to Stranger or All at Once and yet it is evident both artists are pushing themselves in attempt to do some of the best work of their lives. For Simon he is still reaching for more clever phrases and new ways to structure a melody and chord progression. For Keaggy, he is still exploring new territories in his guitar solos and with the conventions of blues and pop. Added to that, the joy found in Keaggy's early albums is still here in full as well: this is a man just as in love with his Savior as he was as a newly converted kid in the 70's. 

And maybe this is where Simon parallels with Keaggy the most: Simon, for his part, is just as aloof as he's always been. He's still that guy in the corner pondering life quietly to himself. So, what is worth noting is how consistent the personalities of these two men have been throughout the years. One of them boils over with joy and exuberance, the other is skeptical but hopeful, carrying a wry melancholy joy with him wherever he goes.

But this is where things get interesting, because Paul Simon is singing a lot about God on Stranger to Stranger.

Stranger to Stranger is about The End for Simon: the end of our world, of our civilization ("The Werewolf"), the end of his relevance as an artist ("Wristband", "In a Parade"), the end of his ability to know and feel love—from God? from people? ("Proof of Love"), the encroaching end of his physical life ("Insomniac's Lullaby"). But none of Simon's "ends" are actual ends—he is always pointing to more, he is always asking questions which lead to more questioning. Nearing the end of his life Simon still sees himself on a journey in pursuit of meaning and love. You can tell he hopes the journey never ends.

And here is where God comes in. God has haunted much of Simon's lyrics over the years in a strangely Christianly non-Christian manner. Or maybe its Christian-tinged Jewish agnosticism. Whatever his perspective, it is apparent Simon believes in God in some shape or form and that God takes somewhat of an active role in our lives. And to this "God" Simon prays for "proof of love" and to help him go to sleep so he doesn't have to think about questions he doesn't understand all night long. Simon also seems to be meditating on justice, proclaiming that everyone's going to get into heaven someday...except "you", this hypothetical "ugly" person who caused some undisclosed pain and suffering and took joy in committing evil ("Cool Papa Bell"). Eventually Simon contemplates his own passing in "Insomniacs Lullaby." "We'll eventually all fall asleep" he bittersweetly laments, but is pushed to ask "How will the builder of bridges deliver us all to the faraway shore?" Simon does not have his answer yet, so he keeps asking the questions.

The album is also about a longing for embrace, about that jittery feeling we get when we see our love ("Stranger to Stranger"), about the insatiable need to connect with other humans ("Riverbank") even if we do happen to be crazy ("Street Angel", "In a Parade")

At this stage in his career Simon is able to let a line hang out there with confident ease for more moments than is normal. He has no problem letting a phrase linger and percolate in the silence of a moment. Simon is thinking about these things and he wants us to think about them too: "Certain melodies tear your heart apart, Reconstruction is a lonesome art" (from "Stranger to Stranger").

Simon's fascination with "world music" (do you hate that term as much as I do?) is as prominent as ever, from his thumping rhythm section, to his use of custom-made instruments, to most of his melodic structures, and yet his use of "world music" is as subtle as it's ever been. He has learned how to pattern the musical structures and motifs of Africa and South America in such a way that it blends into each song rather than drawing attention to itself. I would argue his previous album So Beautiful or So What succeeded in doing this as well, and the two works musically and thematically are of a piece.

By his own admission, Simon has spent his career trying to stretch out and invert the conventions of pop music. Never is this more evident on Stranger to Stranger than on "Insomniac's Lullaby", which on the surface is the album's most conventional song and yet has numerous meandering and dissonant interludes. You can hear Simon pulling at the song's structure and tempo, hear him trying to weave disparate counter-melodies into a sonic whole. It is lovely even as it offers a challenge to listeners. 

At time plaintive, sweet, and playful Stranger to Stranger is a fitting capstone to Paul Simon the revered songwriter's career (if it is that).

A decade younger than Simon in age, Phil Keaggy's new album All At Once finds the artist in a different place altogether. This is Keaggy throwing a party in celebration of life and he's invited his friends along to enjoy it with him. While Keaggy's virtuosity is on full display throughout every song, All At Once is a lighter album than Simon's (supposed) swan song. Musically, the album is an attempt to return to more standard pop and singer-songwriter forms (not that any of these songs would get played on Christian radio because....well, it's Christian radio!), striking a balance somewhere in between Crimson & Blue, True Believers, his self-titled 1998 release, and even hearkening back to the "classic" rock sound of his 70's albums. In essence, what I hear him doing from song to song on All At Once are individual genre studies within which he can explore vocal techniques, pre-established lyrical forms and chord patterns, and his eternal fascination with his primary medium, namely the Guitar Solo. It seems like the challenge he set was to confine himself to certain pop structures which he could then play around with and innovate within.

On the whole Keaggy seems to be most rooted in the blues, but throughout the album I can almost hear him saying "OK, on this one I'm going to tackle Gospel-tinged blues, this one will be "classic rock" infused blues, this one will be my Beatles song, this one will be my "power pop" song, here's my "funky" blues song, this one's going to be my Pink Floyd-esque instrumental, and finally I'll lay down a Gospel hymn." Endlessly fascinated by the breadth and depth of genres literally at his fingertips, Keaggy jumps around with serious glee. After a four plus decade music career what is most fascinating is you can tell he is still ravenously curious about music, that there is more he wants to explore within the highwire walk of a guitar solo. I'm thinking he could write a book or long essay expounding on the philosophy and technique he brings to his solos. That is certainly something I would read. It should be said that Keaggy's solos are equally matched by the riffs and hooks carefully placed within each song. In other words, as much as his solos feel "in the moment", the compositions of the songs themselves are meticulously thought out.

Thematically, the lyrics mostly find Keaggy in "life can be hard, but let's celebrate what God has given us with all our might" mode. The songs juxtapose from joyful declarations of faith and love ("Mercy", "All At Once", "Fearless Love", "Ezekiel"), to romantic songs written for his wife ("I Love The Way You Love Me", "La La La Love You", "Stay Home Baby"), to songs of encouragement for those going through hard times ("Undertow", "Call the Doctor", "Not Be Moved", "I Prayed For You"). For some reason the lyrics (and even the music) kept reminding me of his 1976 album Love Broke Thru. This is earnest music that displays its Christian foundations mostly front and center. Keaggy is unselfconsciously singing about the place of God in his life and the lives of those around him. At the same time he's also singing about his wife with a bursting kid joy as if he were a newlywed. Thus, in many ways All At Once is an unashamed account of how Keaggy feels about God, his wife, and his loved ones. Maybe one day he'll record his existentially bleak, mortality contemplating record (or maybe he already has—Keaggy has so many albums that I certainly haven't kept up with all of them), but he is certainly in the opposite mode on this album. All At Once is a musical Pauline exhortation to not grow weary in doing good.

Growing up I wanted to BE Phil Keaggy, mostly because I wanted to be as good as him on guitar. If I could have but 10% of his brilliance surely I'd be farther along than most everyone... But now, as I approach middle age, I want to be Keaggy for a different reason altogether: I want that same exuberance for life, that same joy in the Lord, that same care for those around me who are suffering. And so, as much as I love him, and as much as I appreciate his lifelong open ended questioning, and as much as I might think he is the American Songwriter (sorry Sufjan), I really don't want to be Paul Simon. There is a sad reticence to his music. God is his friend but he doesn't understand him. Keaggy, one seems to think, has a different approach: he has abandoned himself headlong into the love of God and it shows. Both artists' music are deeply satisfying, Simon's for how it forces us to enjoy the pursuit of the question, Keaggy's for how it bathes us sonically in the joy of our maker and the love of each other. My heart resides somewhere in the middle of the two, which leads me to think we desperately need them both, and that even grandpas can make music we all need to hear.

Related Articles:
The Troubled Future Legacy of Christian Music
The Christian Music Supergroup
Why I Cringe Everytime Someone Says "I hate Christian Music"
Arriving Late to the Party #2: (featuring Paul Simon)
PostConsumer Reports Podcast Episode #5: Singersongwriter Jeremy Casella (friend of Phil Keaggy)


Shawn said...

I agree with your assessment of All at Once. I wrote a SUPER long review of it myself. I feel like you do, that there is a wide variety of influences from song to song, Simultaneously, it hangs together as well as any album he has put out (Save maybe Sunday's Child) and coalesced in such a way as to suggest this is the most "natural" of Keaggy's many recorded directions. Regarding Simon......Yes....he has written about God for a long portion of his career. If you talk to people who have encountered him over the years, you'd hear words like miscreant, miserable, and a few unprintable words to describe his personality/character.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Shawn, please send me the link to your review. I'd love to read it.

I have a deep love for Keaggy and his music. The man is a gift.

I....would....love to hear your stories (or unprintable words) on Simon sometime. That's disappointing though. The guy just needs to give himself over to God. Maybe he should listen to Keaggy's (Van Morrison's) "When Will I Learn to Live in God?" ha.

Private message me if you want to dish out the dirt on Simon. My email is in the about section of my website.

Dave G said...

stumbled over here via your post on Steve Taylor FB group...
I'm a longtime Keaggy fan and enjoyed your review. One thing to bear in mind as you think about the stylistic range/genre choices and lyrical variety in this album: this was a kickstarter album. No sales goals to have to hit or A&R guys to make happy with his choices. This is pure, unencumbered Keaggy making the music he felt like making and thought his fans would enjoy. Through that lens, it tells a lot...

Anonymous said...

Good job Chris. This was an enjoyable read and I sent the link to my dad to read it.