It sounds like a can’t-miss proposition: Paul Simon, with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, playing some of his best-known songs. This approach, as with some Unplugged entries and the recent Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, often reacquaints the listener with a song, but it doesn’t completely work here.
This set is somewhat awkward, assumedly because Paul Simon was in an awkward place in 1965. His first record with Art Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., failed to sell, so he moved to England for a new audience. Simon played the London coffeehouse circuit and became a minor sensation, so his label CBS (now Columbia) Records sent him into the studio for a solo release as a quick profit.
Though “The Sound of Silence” was the only signature Simon & Garfunkel song to appear on their debut record, Simon had already written a handful of tracks that would become the duo’s greatest hits. Some of those appear here -- “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “April Come She Will,” “Leaves That Are Green” -- and maybe it’s because they’re comfortingly familiar, but those are the songs on Songbook that work best. It’s alarming to hear these songs without Garfunkel, and it’s alternately rewarding and disheartening to hear Simon take center stage on songs built for two.
“I Am a Rock” benefits most from the solo treatment. The song features Simon banging away on his guitar, which makes the lyrics (“Don’t talk of love/ I’ve heard the word before”) sound angrier than on the version we all know. The Songbook rendition of “The Sound Of Silence” is also a revelation; although Wednesday Morning featured an acoustic version, hearing Simon sing it solo lends the song appropriate intimacy. “Kathy’s Song,” one of Simon’s best works, is the record’s centerpiece, and this arrangement – even more so than the better-known live solo version – makes the song harshly personal. Last line “there but for the grace of you go I” just doesn’t sound right followed by applause.
While some songs benefit from being stripped down, others suffer. “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” is even more embarrassing here than on the following year’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Simon’s Dylan impression is uncanny, but the talking-blues parody, timely in 1965, now sounds tired. It’s hard to imagine Simon thinking much of this song today.
Though it doesn’t reflect Paul Simon’s deservedly sterling reputation, The Paul Simon Songbook offers a fascinating glimpse at the singer-songwriter in a moment of artistic uncertainty. For Simon, this was a rare place to be.