Paul Simon’s first new record in seven years is a self-described ”concept album,” which isn’t the only reason to approach it with skepticism. The Capeman, Simon’s upcoming theater musical, has made history even before its January opening: The first one written expressly for Broadway by a boomer rocker, it could part the curtains for a new generation of show-tune writers. But while it’s easy to imagine Elton John concocting brassy melodies that will make theatergoers hum, Simon’s internalized lyrics and deft craftsmanship are city blocks removed from the Great White Way.
None of those qualms, though, prepare you for the charm and sheer accessibility of Songs from The Capeman. Consisting primarily of Simon’s renditions of a third of the musical’s songs (he won’t appear in the show himself), it’s a complex and subtly exuberant piece of work. Simon hasn’t conformed to Broadway conventions as much as he’s made them bend to his prickly will. The Capeman is based on the true story of Puerto Rican teen Salvador Agron, who murdered two white teens in New York in 1959, and this setting couldn’t be more ideal for Simon’s theatrical debut. The album flows effortlessly from street-corner serenades (”Adios Hermanos”) to strutting Latin mambos (”The Vampires”) to yackety-sax pop (”Quality”). It’s the roots music of a city kid, and Simon re-creates all of it lovingly, and without a whiff of Sha Na novelty.
Although most of the songs have the narrative lyrics common to musical theater, the melodies themselves are still Simon after all these years. ”Born in Puerto Rico” gracefully blends his pensive lyricism with street-party festiveness, while the twinkling doo-wop of ”Bernadette” features his signature tempo shifts and intricate chord structures. Avoiding splashy Broadway arrangements, the album is smartly, sparely arranged: ”Trailways Bus” is the delicate ”America,” on the lam.
For all its Eisenhower-era harmonizing and crime-story characters, Songs from The Capeman ultimately feels like an old-fangled Paul Simon album, which may be its most endearing quality. His last studio set, 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints, was an immaculate Afro-Brazilian soundscape that, despite its craft, felt distant and stillborn. The same can’t be said of Capeman. With Simon singing in the conversational voices of Agron, his beleaguered mother, and epithet-spewing friends, even a prison guard, it recaptures the directness, poignancy, and whimsy of his strongest albums. The lyrics, cowritten with poet Derek Walcott, are dotted with imagery as vivid as a New York tabloid (an Irish kid is ”a ton of corned beef floating in beer”) and enough expletives to almost deserve an advisory sticker on the album’s cover.
The album has a few slow spots and lyrics that sometimes feel too Manhattan erudite for such streetwise characters — and who knows how these songs will sound when belted by actors on a stage. But right now, Songs from The Capeman makes the rock/show-tune merger seem genuinely valid. ”We have to live/With this cross we call our life,” sings Simon, in the voice of Agron’s mother, after the murder. He could be speaking for all fiftysomething rockers in search of a second act, but Simon himself needn’t worry; he’s found it. A-