Earlier this year, I started working in an office where there’s a nametag on every door. On every nametag is a name, an astrological sign, and the name of a favorite song. I was to make myself a nametag. Astrology aside, It was the same challenge Josh put to me not long before, and here it was, following me again.
I put it off for a long time, but after a few months I figured, why deny “The Obvious Child”?
My senior year of college, I was working on my thesis and desperate for new music to write to. I knew Graceland front to back, and had recently become enamored with Paul Simon’s first two damn-near perfect solo albums. I reached out to my friend Flora for next steps. A Paul Simon fan from birth, her response was immediate: I had to hear Rhythm of the Saints. I’d read about this album, panned on allmusic.com as a forgettable misstep, a Graceland successor that attempts to Graceland-ify the entirety of world music without much success. But Flora’s endorsement was emphatic.
The first time I heard “The Obvious Child,” I was walking to the library from my apartment. It kicks off The Rhythm of the Saints with a field-recorded marching band, playing a figure whose rhythmic count it takes a few listens to totally pin down. The other instrumentation is deliciously minimal. There’s Paul’s guitar and voice, a distant synth pad on the bridge (that fucking bridge man — we are going to talk about that bridge later) and very little else.
I’ve read that Paul fought for an alternate tracklist for Rhythm of the Saints that placed “The Obvious Child” somewhere in the middle of side 2. I can understand this impulse; the rest of Saints is smooth, cleanly mixed and bright with early nineties production values. Every song is astounding, yes, but you only really feel the weight of the lyrics and the impact of the dynamics once you’re already very far inside the record, making your way past listen-number-five en route to total memorization. The bombast of “The Obvious Child,” the roughness of the Brazilian marching band and the truly click-resistant tempo, which speeds up or slows down by half a ton of bpms all throughout the song’s four minutes, make it a major outlier on Saints. As an opening track, it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, but at the same time, how could you possibly have a recording like this and put it anywhere other than track one? Supposedly, Paul’s label just wanted him to sequence the single first, but this might be one of those rare situations wherein a major label has the right artistic idea.
In contrast with Graceland, which reads as a deeply lonely record beneath all its bells, whistles and gated snares (see, for example, the famously dark passage of the famously chipper “You Can Call Me Al:” “Where’s my wife and family? / What if I die here? / Who’ll be my role model, now that my role model is gone?”), Saints is a quietly comfortable — and comforting — album. It’s full of vague, neutral wisdom, generalizations that only Paul could make with such conviction (“Faith is an island in the setting sun;” “The open palm of desire wants everything;” “Sometimes, even music cannot substitute for tears”). In the lyrics on this record, there are a lot of sunrises and sunsets, there’s a lot of meditation, there’s a lot of family, and there’s a lot of talk of money. To me, this record is the sound of a poet hitting his middle age, reckoning with urbanity and mundanity and rooting up something arrestingly beautiful.
This all bubbles over on “The Obvious Child,” which opens in a content present (“I am accustomed to a smooth ride, or maybe I’m a dog whose lost its bite”) before it zips back to the past:
And in remembering a road sign
I am remembering a girl when I was young
And we said, “these songs are true,
These days are ours
These tears are free.”
Fuck. Right? How good is that? That little deviation into flashback slices the song right open. It feels like a sequel to Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” twenty-some years later. This is what became of those two restless characters, chain smoking and tripping and hitchhiking from Saginaw, all bundled up in self-satisfied hopelessness together.
In its chorus, “The Obvious Child” blows through years in seconds: “We had a lot of fun, we had a lot of money / We had a little son, we thought we’d call him Sonny.” That must be twenty or thirty years of a lifetime, compressed into two lines. And so flies by another fistful of decades: “Sonny gets married and moves away / Sonny has a baby and bills to pay / Sonny gets sunnier day by day by day by day.”
God dammit, Paul! And he doesn’t relent there, continuing to rip years off the song’s calendar. And when we reach the bridge, we’ve jumped to a point where his Sonny himself hits the same age that Paul bumps up against so often on this album. Sonny sits by his window, flipping through the pages of his high school yearbook:
Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there
Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls
Runs his hands through his thinning brown hair
Well, holy shit. Have you ever read a better lyric in your goddamn life? I know there’s nothing more faux-academic and lame than using the phrase “the human experience,” but have you ever seen the human experience glossed as precisely and compassionately as it is in those first three lines?
I graduated college just over a year ago, and Saints has stayed with me relentlessly, pulling me through period after period of uncertainty. “The Obvious Child” was the only song I wanted to hear on graduation weekend, back in my apartment swapping out clothes before running off to another reception or to say another indefinite goodbye. And–how cheesy is this?–I remember listening to it as I put on my cap and gown the morning of graduation. All that summer that followed, if I was sweating through a suit after a job interview or sprinting for a late train after a shit gig, Saints was always the soundtrack, and “The Obvious Child” always kicked it off.
It’s tempting to hear the song’s titular phrase as, “why deny the obvious, child?” Paul’s official website, however, excludes the comma, and that’s a whole different ballgame. Everything in this song, right down to a son named Sonny, is totally obvious; Paul whittles down major events in a generic American life and crams them into every line. But in doing so he makes the overwhelmingly normal feel utterly profound.
Pair that with a million-piece drumline, and you’ve got something beautiful and celebratory and comforting beyond all expression.