When I am in Latvia I like to find some new music that becomes something of a soundtrack for my visit. This time I have discovered Paul Simon’s latest album Seven Psalms.
I have always enjoyed Paul Simon’s work from Simon and Garfunkel through to his solo career. He is a master of reinvention from the early Everly Brothers type harmonies to the driving South African beats of Graceland and the Latin flavoured tunes of Rhythm of the Saints.
My favourite Simon and Garfunkel song is America, which captures the mood of the 1960s.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
Seven Psalms is a stripped back acoustic album with some great songs and lovely arrangements. Simon, brought up as a Jew, returns to the Psalms of David to explore matters of life, God and the universe. The uncertainties of the pandemic and the awareness of his own mortality has drawn a brilliant body of work. The Seven Psalms merge into one another as a kind of plaintive tone poem.
Simon captures the mood of his 81-year-old self as he muses on and wrestles with matters of life and death.
The way he received the album has more than a little of the mystical about it. The process began with a strange dream that said, “You’re supposed to write a piece called Seven Psalms.” It continued with Simon waking up in the middle of the night to write snatches of the songs until the whole project was complete.
Although he says it is not a religious album, it does explore religious themes that reflect on various provocative names for God.
“The Lord is my engineer
The Lord is the earth I ride on
The Lord is the face in the atmosphere
The path I slip and I slide on.”
Simon makes no claims to speak with any type of authority or certainty.
“I’m not a doctor or a preacher
I’ve no particular guiding star
In my professional opinion
I’m no more satisfied than you are.”
He instead echoes the words he wrote about aching in his song America:
“I lived a life of pleasant sorrows
Until the real deal came
Broke me like a twig in a winter gale
Call me by my name.
And in that time of prayer and waiting
Where doubt and reason dwell
A jury sat deliberating
All is lost
Or all is well.”
I have enjoyed this album so much and have listened to it dozens of times now. Like so many great cultural expressions, whether it be music, books or film, Seven Psalms raises many questions, like a 21st Century Book of Ecclesiastes, the perceived emptiness and ache echoes the uncertainties of our age.
Preachers should see pieces of art like this as an important conversation starter. How can my preaching address the emptiness and ache?
This was an area in which CS Lewis was a master of joining the dots between our desires and the genuine source of their fulfilment:
“These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”