"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it's true," Paul Simon once sang. At the time, he was writing about the collapse of his marriage. But the lyrics were also prescient, given the ceaseless forward motion of his career, a career based as much on premature nostalgia as on relentless reinvention of the creative self.
This week, Simon released another album, So Beautiful or So What, the 16th in a list that includes as many seminal chart toppers as forgettable singles and outright flops. The critics are - to use a Simonesque term - digging it. It's been hailed as "the very best of his career," "every springy guitar lick its own benediction." I downloaded it the day it came out and have been listening to it non-stop since.
But not everyone digs Art Garfunkel's better half. There are plenty of cranky bloggers out there posting snarky critiques of Simon's heartfelt and commercially successful oeuvre (an unpopular combination in the eyes of cranky snarks). One particularly entertaining screed I happened upon this week began, "I don't like Paul Simon. I don't dig his uninspired compositions, I don't like how polished and sleepy they sound, I don't like his voice. I didn't like Simon & Garfunkel, I don't like Graceland, I'm just not that into him."
It would be easy for me to dismiss such views if I didn't live with them every day. My husband breaks out in an auditory rash at the sound of Simon's dulcet tones. It's something about the singer's folksy earnestness - his combination of unbridled emotional honesty and what another detractor friend calls "that cute and cuddly 1960s dormouse act" - that causes so many Gen Xers' hackles to rise at the very mention of his name. But for me and my generation - the self-esteem-stoked children of the children of the Sixties - Simon is pure, unadulterated childhood nostalgia. Our parents' music, which we in turn made our own.
This week I decided to settle the debate for good - or at least stoke it further - by conducting a poll on Facebook. Paul Simon: Genius or Cheesemeister? Let the people (or at least the people I know on Facebook) decide. In less than 24 hours, 55 people responded.
The results, which were then carefully analyzed in a highly scientific manner by me, can be broken down approximately thus: 60 per cent of respondents think he's a genius, 5 per cent think he's a cheesemeister, 20 per cent say both, and everyone else just likes to post their favourite lyrics.
The poll confirmed my sneaking suspicion: While most people still love the little man with the big hits, he is also somewhat of a polarizing figure. Unlike Celine Dion or Lady Gaga, artists who tend to be either utterly loved or utterly loathed, Paul Simon often manages to elicit both feelings at once.
He survives as both a successful recording and touring artist (his nearly sold-out North American tour kicked off yesterday, and stops in Toronto in early May) not because he is all good or all bad, but because he is a bundle of contradictions - an edgy innovator who is at the same a middlebrow crowd-pleaser; an idealistic romantic who is also a twice-divorced businessman; a hippie who is also a yuppie.
A few weeks ago, I was out for drinks at a dingy bar on Portobello Road in London. The place was filled with young arts and media types wearing high-waisted trousers and vintage hats, drinking pints of Stella and shouting above the music.
I mention the music because it was strangely familiar to my thirtysomething, small-town Canadian ears. A nostalgic blend of Journey, Jimmy Buffet, Boston and Whitesnake, it was - there is no other way to describe it - the music of my childhood. When I chatted up the DJ, a small West Indian chap in skinny jeans, from Croydon, he shrugged and said, "It's yacht-rock night." Then he put on You Can Call Me Al by Simon and the entire room started to dance.
Unlike the previously mentioned musical acts (whose hokey sentiment I can appreciate as much as any other postsuburban child of the eighties), I actually love Paul Simon for real - unironically, full stop. For me, he is not a novelty act from the distant past but an artist and poet who speaks to my intelligence and humanity.
From his folk-rock heyday to the Graduate soundtrack to the solo breakout to the comeback collaboration with LadySmith Black Mambazo to his current release, I have never wavered in my loyalty (except for that dreadful period in the nineties that included Songs from the Capeman).
It isn't hip, it isn't edgy - but there it is. And standing in that Notting Hill bar, watching the cool kids do their half-serious jig, I felt old. Not older than them (although on balance, that was probably true) but spiritually old.
And then I remembered that Paul Simon has always been a bit of an old soul himself. He was only 34 when he recorded Still Crazy After All These Years, an anthem of mid-life nostalgia, if ever there was one. So I raised my glass to my hero, as the hipsters danced, and I wondered: How am I soft in the middle now that the rest of my life is so hard?