Paul Simon announced his new album in an unsual way this weekend: in his bio note from the New York Times Book Review. Simon reviewed Stephen Sondheim’s autobiography, called “Finishing the Hat,” on the front page of the Book Review. At the very end a little bit of news” his new album is called “So Beautiful or So What,” and it will be released in early 2011.
You may recall that last Simon told me he’d moved his entire solo catalog back to Columbia Records, away from Warner Music Group. It’s still unclear who’s releasing the new album. Anybody will be better than WMG which botched his last two releases, “Surprise” and “You’re the One.” The former should have been a hit, and remains a forgotten gem. Simon told me back in May that this new album, he thought, was his best work in 20 years. That’s saying a lot.
Meanwhile, he retells a good story in the Sondheim review about writing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Simon deeply admires Sondheim’s song, “Maria,” from West Side Story. But he reports that Sondheim thought the song had a kind of “overall wetness” — “a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show.”
“Sondheim’s rule, taught to him by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, is that the book and composer are better served by lyrics that are “plainer and flatter.” It is the music that is meant to lift words to the level of poetry.
Sondheim’s regret about “Maria” reminded me of my own reluctance to add a third verse to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I thought of the song as a simple two-verse hymn, but our producer argued that the song wanted to be bigger and more dramatic. I reluctantly agreed and wrote the “Sail on silvergirl” verse there in the recording studio. I never felt it truly belonged. Audiences disagreed with both Sondheim and me. “Maria” is beloved, and “Sail on silvergirl” is the well-known and highly anticipated third verse of “Bridge.” Sometimes it’s good to be “wet.”