Paul Simon plays on Latin topics

Released in 1997, Paul Simon’s ninth solo studio album, Songs from The Capeman, received the worst response of any album in Simon’s decades-long career. Originally written to accompany a Broadway musical of the same name, the album is a reimagining of latin music accompanied by a church choir. Although the musical itself was ultimately a failure, many critics found some redemption in the score written by Simon. In collaboration with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Simon managed to create a story through smart lyrics and fun reimaginings of latin music. For the sake of clarity, this is not a review of the musical. This is merely a review of the album that managed to escape with some of its dignity intact.

To begin, the fact that the album was written for a musical gives the entire selection a sense of coherence. Songs from The Capeman is an experience meant to be enjoyed in one sitting, and there’s a narrative between the romantic strums of Spanish guitar and angelic choirs. Simon rewrites the story of a 1959 gang murder on the voices of fast-paced salsa rhythms and somber doo-wop tracks. He acts as a bard throughout; he sings a creation of characters, and fills them with dialogue and personality as the story progresses. It’s a game of race politics and summer love, interspersed with Latin-inspired background noise.

The album begins with the somber ballad Adios Hermanos, as the protagonist of the album is leaving his apartment in Brooklyn for his trial in the murder of two Irish children. Within the song, a church choir makes a cappella condolences to the boy who is as much a victim of circumstances as he is a murderer. Within the song, Simon describes the racial inequalities of a mid-century New York: “Just let some white boy die and the world goes crazy for blood—Latin blood.” It’s a somber opening, and one that appeals to intrigue and emotion in equal portions.

One the most moving songs on the album is “The Vampires”; a story of a boy forced to join a gang for fear of his safety. This might be the one song on the album where the lyrics take the backseat; the song is a powerfully sexy tango, sung in the voice of the boss of the preeminent Puerto Rican gang. There’s something inherently seductive in the music and it directly contributes to the romanticization of gang life that’s woven into the fiber of the album. Simon’s voice beckons listeners to fight for the sake of the gang, and the song is sultry enough that it’s almost impossible not to.

The album is artful in its form of storytelling; these are words that create a story as much as they create a feeling. Throughout the entirety of the album, Simon keeps a sense of musical consistency that almost forces a listener to hear him out. Ultimately, Simon’s album is political and empowering, and almost overwhelming in its cleverness.