I've been simply haunted by this beautiful song for the past couple days.
Paul Simon's gone through all the changes: folk music, folk rock, protest rock, world music. Thanks to my beloved older brother, I was an early Simon & Garfunkel fan, bought a guitar so I could play their songs, and clung to them through the 60s. But after 1986's Graceland he somehow slipped off my radar; even if I had been listening to the radio anymore (which I wasn't, for one reason or another), his new songs weren't getting airplay.
But along came Sirius radio, which has so many channels it can afford to dig deeper, and one day, out of the blue, I was gobsmacked by this dreamy acoustic track from Simon's 2011 album So Beautiful and So What.
It's mostly just Paul and his guitar (though dig the harp riff before the angel chorus), and really more art song than folk song. I love the tentative tone of Simon's world view, the mature I-don't-want-to-force-this-on-you approach. How lightly he leads us to it. "Pilgrim on a pilgrimage / Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge / Sneakers torn." He shows us the homeless on their "cardboard blankets" -- all very PC. There's that evocative bit about "if you shout for love in a bargain store / You get what you bargained for" and the self-referential moment as he describes "an empty train in a railroad station / Calls you to its destination" -- those of us who grew up with "Homeward Bound" cannot fail to flag that reference to "I'm sitting in a railroad station / Got a ticket to my destination."
For good measure, he throws in an up-to-date reference in the bridge, with a vision of a Jay-Z billboard, acknowledging modern consumer culture (Paul Simon has always had an ear to the ground). This does not work if it is not poised in counterpoint to the real world.
Plenty of unanswered questions float through this song, from the homeless man's "Who am I in this lonely world?" to the last verse's "If every human on the planet / And all the buildings in it / Should disappear / Would a zebra grazing in the African savannah / Shed one zebra tear?"
But the part that really gets me is that ethereal chorus. It's so understated -- a few plucked harp notes, a halting tempo, a shift to a higher key -- and yet musically arresting. Following that chromatic melody with its restlessly changing keys is like watching the angels dance on the head of a pin.
(I can't help but wish that I could hear Art Garfunkel sing this; after all these years, it seems that that's still the angelic voice Paul Simon hears in his head.)
The first time around, he poses the question "Who believes in angels?" and answers it "fools do / Fools and pilgrims all over the world." But the second time around, he admits "I do." Ranking himself with the fools and the dreamers, yes, okay, and casting his lot in with the believers in something beyond ourselves. It's a powerful message of spiritual questing, but conveyed with such finesse.
Yeah, I've got questions for the angels, too. I'm not one-hundred-percent sure they even exist. But the music urges me to explore further. Letting me know that it's not all settled, that there are still issues up in the air.
Because there are more things in heaven and earth, yo dog, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.