Simon’s album has been thought of as mystical journey, and the designation seems apropos.  The musician himself seems to want us to imagine him as a spiritual seeker, after all, the piece opens with a bell and closes with an “Amen”.

Paul Simon’s most recent album “Seven Psalms”, a highly creative one-track album released in 2023 and lasting approximately 33 minutes, opens with the sound of a bell.  Sonorous and clear chords follow, weaving together a melodious sound.  Finally, a voice: “I’ve been thinking about the great migration”.  These opening lyrics present but one of the many personal and social issues that have pressed in upon Simon in recent years.  Mortality, framed as “the great migration”, love, and forgiveness constitute some of the album’s themes, and for this reason, the genre of a psalm feels right; every emotion, poignant and acerbic, finds a place.  Given these themes and its title, “Seven Psalms” sounds like the mature musings of one of the more gifted musicians in English.  Indeed, it is hard not to marvel at Simon’s capacity for artful composition, and in this piece, he provides the listener surprisingly simple, playful, and deep musical as well as lyrical expressions.  But the musical journey in this album feels different; it defies easy classification.  If it is a psalm – a humble, brash, and supplicating prayer to God –, it is also a musical and lyrical expression about finding belief.  Or, if it is the musician-songwriter expressing his feelings as he contemplates some of the more mysterious human realities, these pieces also tell the story of a search in sound and language to express those feelings.  This is not to suggest that the album enacts a kind self-conscious postmodern play on composition.  No, Simon is not playing with the genre, but he is exploring the mysteries of human life and his feelings about them in sound and language.  The album invites listeners into a similar kind of exploration – one that is serious, creative, and playful.

The sound of a bell that opens these seven psalms creates silence, and from that silence, the music takes flight, ranging from the sonorous to the quirky.  The vastness and the colors of the music suggest that Simon is in some kind of search for sound, new sound, a new way to express what he feels.  In the trailer for the release of this album, he alludes to just such a search.  He reports that he was “looking for the edge of what you hear. I can just about hear it, but I can’t quite. That’s the thing I want. How do you get there?”[1].  In the album, Simon expresses this excursion to the edge of what you can hear with biblical allusions.  He refers to his predecessor in the genre of psalms, King David, the author-composer of that book of the Bible, when he sings: “the sacred harp we long to hear those strings that set his heart ablaze”.  To hear those sounds that set hearts on fire – this is what Simon is doing in this album: he is searching for those sounds that are new and that create new feelings.  In this way, the music is more than a medium to express a concept or an emotion, it is a journey to find what he feels. This excursion into the edges of what can be heard does not, however, devolve into something unrecognizable.  The opening chords return and that antiphonal repetition gives the piece, as it moves through seven psalms, stability.  But that stability is always the point of departure for a new exploration.

Simon’s album has been thought of as mystical journey, and the designation seems apropos[2].  The musician himself seems to want us to imagine him as a spiritual seeker, after all, the piece opens with a bell and closes with an “Amen”.  In her landmark study on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill argued that the mystic is not the one who sees forms, visions, and other supernatural phenomena.  In the perspective of this great English scholar, such a way of considering mysticism would reduce it to magic.  No, mystics are not magicians, they are the ones who search, act, and journey[3].  They are explorers, and stillness and silence, deeply revered aspects of the mystical life, are the points of departure; they are not the place of arrival.  The opening stanza of John of the Cross’s Dark Night testifies to this.  At the beginning of the poem, the narrator exclaims: “I went out unseen / my house being now all stilled”[4]. The house of the lover is quiet, and because of that internal quiet, the fruit of long and arduous ascetic practices, the journey to the Beloved, the journey to those new “edges” or relational places with God, can occur.  In a similar way, Simon’s musical-mystical journey is not magic nor is it about seeing visions; it is an exploration.  And like mystics before him, it is stillness that begins the excursion into the edges of what can be heard. 

This journey into sound that begins in silence is more than a metaphor; according to Simon this piece literally began when he and his house were “all stilled”.  In describing the compositional process, he reports that the lyrics that comprise all seven psalms came to him at night in dreams.  In his first dream, he was told that he was working on a piece called “seven psalms”.  Not sure of what this meant, and realizing that his experience as a songwriter was not helping him understand this nightly communication of phrases, he decided that “there was nothing to do but wait”.   And he waited, copying down what he heard night after night without understanding, but all the while sensing that “it was a gift”.  Though he hastened to declare in his reflections on composing “Seven Psalms” that “I am not religious”, he recognized that something was moving and inhabiting him.  In Biblical language, we might say that not unlike the Hebrew prophets before him, he was given a scroll to eat, and the language, in its final form as it comes to listeners, does indeed taste as sweet as honey[5]

Though he attests to the language of “Seven Psalms” as coming from a mysterious place, so much of it seems to originate from within.  We hear Simon tell us that he has lived “a life of pleasant sorrows until the real deal came” and he was broken “like a twig”.  In another passage, we hear of his cry for forgiveness: “I the last in line hoping the gates won’t be closed before your forgiveness”.  Such lyrics express heartache, fear, and doubts.  Will he be forgiven?  As poignant as that question is, it is also beautiful.  Sorrow is, as he declares “a beautiful song”, and for listeners, it is hard not to be empathically drawn in and to feel a similar kind stirring for healing and forgiveness.  We too have faced “the real deal” that broke us, and yet in the sorrow we have also savored something beautiful and poignant. 

One of the paradoxes of the language of these psalms is that their autobiographical feel actually invites kinship.  These lyrics bring us into the private, vulnerable places of his humanity, yet his language reaches out for us and includes us in the journey.  In the psalm titled “Trail of Volcanoes” he offers that “we are all walking down the same road”.  His great migration is ours, and his hopes “to believe in a dreamless transition” might be ours too.  At times, this kinship borders on the cosmic, as he seeks to see connection in everything.  The most felicitous expression of this comes in the psalm “Your forgiveness” where Simon sings that “all of life’s abundance in a drop of condensation”.  Everything in the world can be seen in the small, delicate, and slight drop of water.  A few centuries earlier, the great poet and mystic William Blake wrote something similar: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And Heaven in a Wild Flower”[6].  Blake’s own mysticism and genius hovers in the background of Simon’s “Seven Psalms”.  Blake too composed tonal poems: his “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”, full of musicality and appearing in their first edition in illustrations by the writer himself, represent poetic searches for the Creator who is to be found in all of life’s experiences. 

Like Blake before him, Simon takes the search for kinship to its deepest level.  He commits himself to the search of all searches, that exploration that has animated mystics from the beginning of the Abrahamic traditions: the search for God. Ever since Moses boldly asked God: “What is your name?” mystics from all traditions have sought to know God’s name[7].  Simon too, though he confesses that he is an unbeliever, seems to insert himself in this tradition.  Throughout these seven psalms, he intrepidly names and calls out to the Lord in a range of ways.  Some of these designations surprise for their apparent banality: “The Lord is my engineer”; others have a much larger sweep: “The Lord is a virgin forest / The Lord is a forest ranger”.  As listeners, we are drawn in by Simon’s courage to seek and to name Adonai.  Moreover, the ordinary nature of these designations invites us to undertake a similar kind of confession: who is the Lord for us? Can we too name him in ordinary, banal, and simple ways?   

As easy as it may be to agree with Simon that “the Lord is in the music that we hear” or to think that he is on a deep mystical journey in this music, the album itself reveals that this may not be the case.  A listener knows something else is up when he or she hears: “The Covid virus is the Lord / The Lord is the ocean rising / A terrible swift sword”. These not-so-subtle references to the global pandemic, the already present environmental catastrophe, and culture wars in American society, suggest that his project is more musical than mystical.  Rather than proposing a grand mystical vision of reality, seeing the Lord as the one who could “frame the fearful symmetry”[8] of the Covid virus, Simon seems to be parodying and playing with our language about God.  Yes, the play’s the thing, and here he is catching out some of the dangerous things we say about God. 

CCBY2.0 Matthew Straubmuller (imatty35) –

It would be too naïve on our part to simply state that Simon has, at the age of 80, become a mystic, seeing God in all things.  Simon is a writer, and he is being playful, mischievous, and serious all at once.  These seven psalms are not confessions of a new-found faith, rather they are a playful, provocative, and lively searches for meaning in our lives in language and music.  This play continues, and it depends, as it does for poets, on sound: “The Lord is the earth I ride on…the path I slip and slide on”. This is even more the case in “The Lord is the coast, and the coast is clear”.  Here the songwriter is at his best: he is playing with sounds, employing language that borders on the commonplace, and using it in a wonderfully fun way.  The Lord is in the simple, the playful, even the commonplace. 

The technological world in which we are immersed suggests that virtual reality “plays the world into existence” and it similarly posits AI as “speaking the world into existence”, but to say this as if it were something original to today’s world is to forget that art is generative, creative, and always bringing into existence new feelings and new ways to think about our humanity.  This is Simon’s musical feat in “Seven Psalms”: he brings us something new that is mystical, mischievous, and playful.  The idea seems to be less that of arriving at profound conclusions, as it does to explore in sound and in language new ways to express and to feel who we are even as we contemplate life’s mysteries.  This album invites us to ponder the great mysteries of our life, and to do it in a way that is lively, playful, and fun.

[1] See “The story of Seven Psalms by Paul Simon”, Accessed 3 Feb 2024.

[2] also, Amanda Petrusich, “The Mysticism of Paul Simon”, The New Yorker, June 5th, 2023. Accessed 23 Jan 2024.

[3] Underhill, Mysticism (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 83.

[4] John of the Cross” The Dark Night”, in The Collected Works of John of the Cross, edited and translated by Kieran Kavanaugh & Otilio Rodríguez (Washington: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2017), 358.

[5] Ezekiel 3:3.

[6] Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 493.

[7] Martín Velasco, El fenómeno místico (Madrid: Trotta, 2009), 193. 

[8] Blake, “The Tyger”, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 24.