You Can Call Me Al Songwriting
Zero in on the lyrics for deeper meaning.
According to Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker, "among Simon's contemporaries in popular music, perhaps only Paul McCartney is his peer as a writer of melodies, just as Bob Dylan and, maybe, James Taylor are his only peers as lyricists." High praise indeed. When it comes to songwriting, Simon is patient, meticulous, and attentive. He is rarely afraid to discard large chunks of his draft lyrics, because he sees songwriting as "trial and error repeated almost endlessly." This work ethic has clearly served Simon well.
The lyrics of "You Can Call Me Al" include a medley of vignettes and experiences from Simon's life. Some of the lyrics seem like gibberish that Simon included simply because he liked the combination of the words: "some roly-poly bat faced girl." Can't say we've ever seen such a thing. (Fortunately?) But to Simon, it doesn't matter if such a thing exists. What is interesting in Simon's songwriting in this particular song is that none of the lines rhyme with one another, yet they flow together so easily. Simon has a knack for understanding what sounds good, formal rhyme scheme be damned. Writing lyrics and music, he explains, is all about "getting the right mixture of sounds and words."
Simon's lyrics are at times highly personal, and yet at other times they maintain some distance between the artist and the listener. "You Can Call Me Al" contains episodes of his life that actually occurred, such as the seemingly bizarre chorus, which is based on an instance at a party in which the host called Paul Simon "Al" and his then-wife Peggy Harper "Betty." The third verse of the song is probably the most personal, as he describes ever so briefly, yet poignantly, his experience in South Africa. Simon perfectly captures the experience of being a foreigner in a strange land who is trying to make sense of all the things he sees, hears, smells, and feels. As Simon explains, "I write about the things I know and observe."
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