Listen again to the storied lyrics of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Sounds of Silence"—assuming those tunes aren't already hardwired in your brain—and you might find yourself agreeing that legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon doesn't mind infusing his music with spiritual themes from time to time.
But for the Jewish-raised troubadour to spend his most recent album, the critically acclaimed So Beautiful or So What, singing about Jesus, angels, the afterlife, and other elements close to the heart of Christianity?
Well, that's a narrative turn even Simon didn't expect.
"It's funny," Simon, 70, reflected in a recent PBS interview, "for somebody who's not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs."
You can watch the entire interview below:
Simon's most recent project took 6th place in Christianity Today's top albums of 2011. CT's review of So Beautiful or So What, which garnered five out of five stars, noted that Simon is "clearly content with life's perplexities, humble in the face of what is bigger than himself."
Spiritual things are "part of my thoughts on a fairly regular basis. I think of it more as spiritual feeling," Simon told Kim Lawton, who interviewed him for the PBS segment and penned a follow-up piece for CT. "It's something I recognize in myself and that I enjoy, and I don't quite understand it."
You don't get that impression digging into the spiritually aware lyrics of So Beautiful or So What. One of its best examples is "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," the catchy, vibrant opener for which Simon samples audio of a 1941 sermon (with the same title) by the Rev. J.M. Gates.
The result is a kind of bittersweet advent prayer—a mix of life's ups and downs, with Simon's protagonist looking toward "the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas Day":
From early in November to the last week of December
I got money matters weighing me down
Oh the music may be merry, but it’s only temporary
I know Santa Claus is coming to town
In the days I work my day job, in the nights I work my night
But it all comes down to working man’s pay
Getting ready, I’m getting ready, ready for Christmas Day
(Reverend Gates) Getting ready for Christmas Day. And let me tell you, namely, the undertaker, he’s getting ready for your body. Not only that, the jailer he’s getting ready for you. Christmas Day. Hmm? And not only the jailer, but the lawyer, the police force. Now getting ready for Christmas Day, and I want you to bear it in mind.
You can check out the song's music video below:
In the behind-the-scenes video (below), Simon appears a bit in awe of how Gates' sermon just seemed "meant" for his music and lyrics:
"The Afterlife"—a whimsical tune with insightful perspectives on eternity—features a striking lyric offering that a face-to-face meeting with God should obliterate any earthly burdens we bear:
After you climb up the ladder of time
The Lord God is near
Face-to-face in the vastness of space
Your words disappear
And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love
And the current is strong
And check out the opening salvo of "Love and Hard Times":
God and His only Son
Paid a courtesy call on Earth
One Sunday morning
Orange blossoms opened their fragrant lips
Songbirds sang from the tips of Cottonwoods
Old folks wept for His love in these hard times
Based on such a collection of (dare we say) biblically rich lyrics, one can't help wondering what's been going on in Simon's soul of late, whether he understands those goings on or not.
Others haven't waited for the fabled bard to figure it all out.
Cathleen Falsani, an acclaimed Christian cultural and arts critic, calls So Beautiful or So What "one of the most beautiful, gracefully powerful and memorable collections of spiritual musical musings in recent memory." She adds a declaration from fellow believer and critic, Northern Ireland's Steve Stockman, that Simon's latest effort is "so God drenched that it could win best Christian album of the year.”
It came close, but that would seem a trivial concern to Simon, who clearly gets more out of enjoying this strange turn in his spiritual journey...wherever it takes him.
"Quite often, people read or hear things in my songs that I think are more true than what I wrote," he told Lawton. "I feel I'm like a vessel, and it passed through me, and I'm glad."