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At 81, Has Paul Simon Found Religion on His New Album, ‘Seven Psalms’?

We review his six-decade journey making music — and pondering God

spinner image Paul Simon makes a special appearance onstage with his guitar during the special tribute concert Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon
Photo by: Christopher Polk/CBS via Getty Images

Paul Simon, 81, says his new record, Seven Psalms, “is really an argument I’m having with myself about belief, or not.” It came to him in a dream, “and the dream said, ‘You're supposed to write a piece called Seven Psalms,’ ” he told Gramophone. “I wasn’t writing anything. ... I had done what I thought was probably going to be my last live performance, at least for a while. And then this dream happened, and I thought, I’m not sure I even know what a psalm is.

Simon’s seven-part, 33-minute composition is his prayer for answers, ending with “Amen.” His voice and acoustic guitar are front and center against an evocative, otherworldly soundscape created entirely by acoustic instruments: gongs, Swiss tuned bells, harmonium, glockenspiel. His wife, Edie Brickell, 57, and British vocal ensemble Voces8 provide additional vocals.

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The result is moving and meditative, subdued yet complex.

​Simon recounts God’s omnipresence in the opener “The Lord,” whose blissful delicacy intensifies at a dark turn: “The Covid virus is the Lord / The Lord is the ocean rising / The Lord is a terrible swift sword.” In “Your Forgiveness” he contemplates life after death: “I, I have my reasons to doubt / A white light eases the pain / Two billion heartbeats and out / Or does it all begin again?”

“The Sacred Harp” starts with a vignette about picking up hitchhikers, then hairpins into the Book of Samuel verse about David playing the harp to ease King Saul’s torment: “The sacred harp that David played to make his songs of praise / We long to hear those strings that set his heart ablaze."​

What’s the wellspring of this dream-fueled search for meaning at the age of 81?

The spiritual journey of Paul Simon​

spinner image The album cover for Paul Simon's Seven Psalms
The album cover for "Seven Psalms."
Sony Music Entertainment

Seven Psalms marks a peak in Simon’s long-percolating spirituality. His music is liberally seeded with allusions to spirituality in general — but there are so many specifically Christian references that a puzzled Paul McCartney once asked him, “Aren’t you Jewish?”

Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Simon was bar mitzvahed, but his work has expressed a quest not defined by devoutness. In his 1983 song “Hearts and Bones,” he refers to himself and former wife Carrie Fisher (whose dad was Jewish) as “One and one-half wandering Jews / Free to wander wherever they choose … / In the Sangre de Cristo / The Blood of Christ Mountains / Of New Mexico.”

Over the years Simon spent hours talking religion, with the Dalai Lama and with British evangelical theologian John Stott. His 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What, with its hit tune “The Afterlife,” won a rave review in Christianity Today. “It’s funny, because for somebody who’s not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs,” Simon said then.

God coming up in Paul Simon’s songs

spinner image Musician Paul Simon sitting at a table with his hands clasped
Photo by: Myrna Suarez

Spirituality has long suffused his music, starting with Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964 debut studio album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, which updates Orlando di Lasso’s 16th-century “Benedictus” and the American spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” In the 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson,” he sings, “Jesus loves you more than you will know” and “Heaven holds a place for those who pray.”

The soaring 1970 pop hymn “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a deliberate dive into gospel sound and sentiment. (Simon proudly called it his “Yesterday" — the tune that came to Paul McCartney in a dream.) Snippets of its melody were inspired by J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” And Simon got the song’s title from the Swan Silvertones’ 1959 version of the 19th-century spiritual “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” in which lead singer Claude Jeter intones, “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” When Simon met Jeter in 1972, he immediately wrote him a check out of gratitude. New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint said the 1970 hit “had two writers: Paul Simon and God.”

Simon has cautioned that often his religious references are skeptical or mocking. “The Afterlife” likens heaven to a mindless bureaucracy like the DMV: “Had to stand in line just to glimpse the divine.” In 2011’s “Love and Hard Times,” Simon opens with “God and His only Son / Paid a courtesy call on Earth,” only to have them abruptly depart in the next verse because “There are galaxies yet to be born … / Anyway, these people are slobs here.” But his 2011 “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” built around a sample from a 1941 sermon by preacher and gospel singer J.M. Gates, finds Simon rejoicing: “Getting ready ... / For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas Day.”

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“Prayers are the constant road across the wilderness,” he sings on his 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints. "The ancient prayers we repeat in Christianity and Judaism and Moslem religions come from long ago, when our relationship to God was much more direct,” Simon told Vox. “God was a relevant factor, a physical presence in everyday life. I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person, but I would describe myself as curious."

Now, at 81, Simon gives us his latest: an extended, soulful prayer that continues to probe, pose questions and give us the only answer he has: unforgettable lyrics and music.​

Listen to it: Seven Psalms, streaming and on CD and vinyl May 19

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