Pitchfork 90s list omissions #3:
Paul Simon: “The Obvious Child” (Rhythm of the Saints, 1990)
Unlike the first two 90s omissions, this song really doesn’t say much about the 90s. It’s strangely out of time, perhaps because it’s vital, creative work by a guy whose career was already three decades old. Paul Simon by this point likely didn’t even know what the trends of the day were, much less did he try to ride any of their coattails.
And yet we talked about this song quite a bit before we got down to the business of voting. It holds a place in a lot of our minds, and it’s just so purely “good” that it’s hard to overlook completely (and it was afforded an honorable mention).
I think the song’s greatness begins with the way Simon’s vocal makes this very precise, poetic song sound completely tossed off, like he’s just coming up with it as he goes along, or maybe he’s finding it already in the air and channeling it.
It’s ostensibly a melancholy gloss over the lives of a father and his son (Sonny). We’re in the father’s head as he reflects, then we go to a distant, camera-lens view of the son, then back and forth and back again. In just three lines, Sonny goes from a baby born at a good time in his parents’ lives to being a father himself, with bills to pay. When we return to him, it seems to be at a time in his life when his own children have moved on, and we get this verse, one of my favorite ever:
Sonny sits by the window and thinks to himself
How it’s strange that some rooms are like cages
Sonny’s yearbook from high school is down from the shelf
And he idly thumbs through the pages
Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there
Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls
Runs his hand through his thinning brown hair
And that’s it—this scene is never completed. And suddenly, we have not just Sonny’s story, but the story of everyone he knew when he was young, and by extension, our story. If played with a heavier hand, it would be downright depressing. But it’s not. Simon sets this against the ebullient drumming of the Olodum cultural group of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, recorded live in Pelourinho Square and sings it fluidly, melodically, without judgment. It has a racing pulse.
And so the song isn’t some navel-gazing rumination or downbeat complaint that our lives are difficult and short—it’s a celebration of life as a journey. The older I get, the more it resonates with me. When I was a kid and my father played his cassette of Rhythm of the Saints, I just liked the drums, but 20 years on, everything about it rings true.
In Simon’s view, the journey seems to lead somewhere—the exchange “some people say the sky is just the sky/but I say why deny the obvious child” implies a god or something beyond this life, a belief I don’t share. But I do know that, whatever other layer there might be to this life, the sky is in fact not just the sky, but merely the window to an infinite universe. And an infinite universe means infinite possibility. Within those possibilities, there is room for both Simon’s belief and my own.
This song, to me, is an affirmation of the singular power of pop music to concisely say all the things we think and fear in a form we can love and return to over and over again. We can sing along at the top of our lungs, and perhaps it helps us cope with the pressure and the struggle. Perhaps it even helps us celebrate the unevenness of life. Play it loud and you’ll see what I mean.