Well I’m back, which in itself is good news considering the questionable nature of my existence a couple of weeks ago, I even managed to avoid any major sunburn. We had some rather sticky issues at the Ecuador/Peru border at 1 in the morning, overslept and ended up much further into Ecuador than intended and I was seduced by the charms of a ridiculously oversized Alpaca hat in Lima much to the pain of my finances. Still, a wonderful, thrilling and often life affirming time was had. There are too many shreds of overlapping experience to begin talking about here but I will say a few things of interest/note.
1: Ecuador is fucking hot! I stepped out of a very comfortable, air conditioned bus into an oppressive weight of smothering, tropical heat that felt like being wrapped up in moist, recently microwaved, blankets.
2: Placing your body at the unfamiliar heights of 5000 meters above sea level is akin to having lengths of rope slowly tightening round your chest and head while someone pumps anorexic air into your brain with a large pair of fire bellows. It affected me so greatly that by the time we reached our destination of Lake 69 I was scarcely able to behold its otherworldly blueness (see below). Let alone make pointless and inappropriate jokes about its obvious sexual connotations (a missed opportunity that is most unlike me).
3: To be on a boat again after so long, winding lazily through a dark river beset by jungle, is something with true power to remove any weight from your shoulders.
4: A bottle of Johnnie Walker Green Label costs around 200 Soles (£45), Blue Label costs about 800 Soles (£175) and a bottle of Dom Ruinart Champagne costs in the region of 400 Soles (£88) while Dom Perignon will set you back at least 1000 Soles (£220). If there are any bottles of single malt whisky to be found in South America then I’m looking in the wrong places so far.
5: The best Ceviche is served in Lima.
6: Alpaca slippers are comfortably within the top five most wonderful things you will ever put your feet into.
7: Good cheese is more addictive than heroin and is technically classed as pornography when displayed in full colour A4 photographic form.
8: Macdonalds still tastes like shit on other continents.
9: I’d probably be dead if it wasn’t for the help, kind heart and multi-lingual might of Maartje Koelemij.
10: There is certainly not enough time in even the longest lifetime to fully explore and understand the vastness that is South America and its many incredible cultures and peoples.
Anyway that’s enough holiday notes for now. I was going to make my first new post a tasting note or two seeing as I have been fortuitously furnished with a fresh set of tasting samples. However, in light of recent musical developments, I have decided to do something I haven’t done on these pages for a while, a whisky and music pairing.
I think the second or third post I did on this blog was concerning my love for the music of Paul Simon, I said I would write again about his music and, true to my word, here we are. Simon released a new album in April, ‘So Beautiful Or So What’, new Paul Simon albums are rare thus making them special by any standards but this one came in a kind of perfect storm of happenstance. I was about to travel as it was released, this meant long silent night busses to spend alone with the music, to become deeply acquainted with every flicker of melody and couplet of lyric, to know the darker corners and hidden shades of the album as a whole. It was also at a point where I have recently been learning many of Simon’s songs on guitar simply to force myself to improve my simplistic abilities, this has lent me a whole new understanding of his songs and his staggering fluency as a musician, not to mention an even deeper respect for the man. Finally this album is actually brilliant, which helps a great deal. All too often with your most cherished artists you find yourself listening to a new album and subconsciously making excuses for them, politely pretending to yourself that this is still good stuff they’re doing. Here there is none of that, the album is the best he has done since ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’ twenty years ago, it is comfortably the equal of that great album (if not quite as majestic as 1986′s ‘Graceland’).
Through the years Simon has strived to explore new musical territories, many of them rhythmic in nature as his songwriting has for a long time been based from the rhythm upwards. Here he seems to offer a musical landscape populated by the hallmarks of his past and yet still somehow new. The elegant melody of his folk derived sounds is in rich abundance, but like on all his albums the melodies are never obvious enough to drift into predictability or trite prettiness. Instead they are woven through a textured fabric of world class musicianship that is not about grandstanding or solos but about the service of the song. Simon has, over the years carefully surrounded himself with some of the most intuitive, sensitive and brilliant session players in the world and this album seems to showcase this achievement almost more than any other. The impression upon listening is that everyone cares deeply about ‘the song’, the musicianship is bereft of ego or vulgarity, the guitar lines are sparse and beautiful, focused in such a way that only intensifies the power of the music and channels your attention deeper into the innards of each song. There are the Latin and African influences that are a career mainstay since ‘Graceland’ only here they are a balanced, if essential, component of a larger whole. Those flickering rhythms and beds of percussion percolate the whole album in a way that gives it a ‘sound’ yet still allows each song its individuality. Simon has stated that this album was an experiment to some extent with the idea of the album as a piece of work in its own right. In this age of downloads, randomly mixed Ipods and instant playlists, is the album a dead artform? The answer is obviously no but the album is very much an ‘album’, perhaps the most thematically cohesive work Simon has produced since his eponymous solo debut in 1972. Nowhere is this in better evidence than in Simon’s lyrics. Most songwriters seem to lean in strength either towards musicality (ie McCartney) or lyricism (ie Dylan) in their songwriting skills. Simon however seems to be one of the few who truly balance the gap with equal ability on both sides of the songwriting coin. The answer is probably in the fact that he releases an album so infrequently, his style is one of a slow and playful craftsman, a deeply intuitive ability with music but a methodical and disciplined will to take the right time to perfectly craft the songs. This natural method hasn’t always worked but when it does, as with this album, the results are almost unbeatable. He displays levels of songmanship and musical craft that leave most other contemporary songwriters miles behind in the shallow waters of distant memory. Songs like ‘The Afterlife’ (see above) set the thematic tone for the album with a deep rooted yearning for spiritual comfort but channeled through a fabric of humour, wit, warmth and cold honesty in his social and self assessment. The journalistic nature of the song reveals a recently deceased man waiting in line for the afterlife where in equal measure he is lost against the incomprehensibility of God and the universe…
After you climb, up the ladder of time, the Lord God is here.
Face to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappear.
And you feel like swimming in an ocean of love, and the current is strong.
But all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song…
… and yet, while he waits in line he tries to chat up a girl…
Woah, there’s a girl over there, with the sunshiny hair, like a homecomin’ queen.
I said, “Hey, what you say? It’s a glorious day, by the way how long you been dead?”
Maybe you, maybe me, maybe baby makes three, but she just shook her head…
His ability as a lyricist is showcased on this album almost better than on any other, although they lack the bite of earlier works they compensate with riveting honesty and depth. His ruminations on love and God that are the emotive driving forces of the album are typically melancholy but inescapably truthful and bereft of cliche or sentimentality. The power is compounded by the warmth and truthful intimacy of his voice. For a man pushing 70 his voice is in remarkably unchanged condition, slightly darker in timbre here and there but otherwise his levels of expression and freshness remain startling. The overall impression is that the extra years have served to impart a wisdom to his voice that has come naturally in place of some his earlier more powerful vocal passion. In all this album is a beautifully crafted and thematically precise collection of songs that seem effortless yet offer haunting and humorous speculations on loss, life, love and God. Without a doubt one of Simon’s best albums and a perfect example to shatter the idiotic myth that songwriting is a young man’s game. These songs are seething with experience and sound just like the thoughts wrung from a mind startled by the immense pain and joy that a lifetime can bring in equal measure. If you are at all interested in songwriting and the art and craft of the song as a means of communication then listen to Paul Simon, most others pale in comparison.
So, as is tradition on this blog, lets pick a whisky to drink while listening to this album. This, I am realising as I type is a much greater challenge when considering a whole album, a work full of twists and turns, quirks of melody and lyric that offset various moods and themes against each other, jumping over and between different feelings and ideas and often returning to but equally abandoning these same contemplations. Tricky in other words and the only thing that comes to mind is a whisky that keeps developing, a dram that evolves in complexity and depth over time but returns upon itself to central flavours and aromas, a whisky that has an obvious structure but with a myriad of adorning and overlapping complexities that add flesh and personality to its bones. It is tempting to just say ‘fuck it lets have an old Ardbeg or Brora‘ but this is a cop out I feel. Besides I don’t really feel compelled to wrestle with such a beast while listening to this music, the two forces need to be complimentary not competitive. A whisky in this situation should be a liquid conductor that helps to fuse the music to your mind and soul.
Oban is an often overlooked or underrated spirit. This is probably due to the fact that most people try the 14yo and quite like it but never get any further because the whisky world is virtually bereft of independent or aged examples. They do exist and most are actually fantastic, the majority of the more obscure expressions you can try range from good to utterly stunning. Like Paul Simon with his rare album releases, he never really wrote a bad song or made a bad record, some are just better than others. I’ve been fortunate enough to try this old seventies era bottling a couple of times and it is a wonderful dram, an example of west coast highland whisky that is not made any more, except perhaps at Springbank (and arguably Oban but lets not get into that). Salty, coastal, powerful and fruity with a gentle complexity that keeps it interesting and evolving all the time. Like the best Obans it is deeply evocative of the place it was made, of the west coast of Scotland and all the weather and memory that those words entail but it is also a mentally nourishing dram. Not overtly peated, not boisterous, just confidently full bodied and potent in its flavours and intensity of personality. I love Oban and, like the music of Mr Simon, I wish there was more available but I suppose the rarity is part of the charm, that’s what makes it special, when one comes along, you can bet it will be worth waiting for.
Next time we’re going to Campbeltown, until then, have a joyful time of it and try and listen to ‘So Beautiful Or So What’, ideally with a big dollop of Oban in a glass.