Perfect Songs: “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon

Like so many songs of my early childhood in the late 1970s, “Slip Slidin’ Away” became part of my pre-linguistic sensory experience. Instrumentally spare even for a Paul Simon recording, it nevertheless has the distinction of being a song I experience in my chest as some form of synaesthesia, of sound made into sensation. To a two-year old, lyrics are obviously irrelevant, so it’s a testament to the magic of Paul Simon’s voice and the distinctive “and three” percussion that the song makes an impression at all on someone whose cognitive abilities are limited.

It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a lullaby, but even then I knew the song was not telling me that everything would be alright. I understood the words in the title at least, and I knew it meant loss of control, of being slowly moved in some unintended direction.

Released in late 1977 as a bonus track for Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc., the song went to #5 on the Billboard charts. It’s one of the few situations I can think of where an unreleased song was appended to a hits collection and actually became a hit itself. It didn’t make the cut onto Still Crazy After All These Years, so it seems as though Simon is saying “here’s this thing I didn’t want to tell you about.” Maybe he wasn’t sure it was good enough, or maybe he thought we wouldn’t understand or be prepared for the message.

Because the song was encoded in my memory as a sensation rather than a song, I never took the time later in life to comprehend the lyrics. I absorbed it as I do most songs – music first, lyrics last, if at all. Only within the last few years did I get around to comprehending the verses. A lot of Paul Simon’s tunes have a certain sadness laced with hope, but this one doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation. It simply presents the world as it is – a man too much in love, a woman with lowered (realistic?) expectations from life, a father who doesn’t explain himself, and then the final verse, the knock-down blow:

God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We’re working our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away

It’s a dark truth that we are, for the most part, not in control, much as we may think we are. Maybe it’s just the timbre of The Paul Simon Voice that softens the punch, but the song manages not to be completely depressing; instead it transmits a feeling of being at peace with an uncertain universe. As children, our lullabies are either unreasonably rosy (“you make me happy when skies are grey”) or strangely horrid (“the cradle will fall?” WTF, mom?), so “Slip Slidin’ Away” might make a good middle ground. It’s the kind of message children would benefit from hearing more often. Somehow I think it was beneficial for me.

UPDATE: I realized recently that the most likely definition of “Slip Slidin’ Away” is death. I was reminded of a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (and adapted by Chroma Key into a piece called “When You Drive“) wherein Han says, “we have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible…but we arrive at every moment…If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. You don’t want to arrive there.” So with that in mind, we really do think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re just getting closer to death.

Perfect Songs – “Never Meant” by American Football

In our first installment I talked about bands versus singer-songwriters. Here’s what a band brings to the table that I’ve rarely heard a singer-songwriter accomplish: every part of the song represents a uniquely creative musical idea. When I heard this drum part, I immediately wanted to sit down and learn it. Then I wanted to learn the intertwined guitar parts, which are in the band’s own idiosyncratic tuning. And then the bassline. And the vocals. Everything about this song is f*cking magical.

In particular I enjoy the parts of the song where the lyrics are stretched so far apart in time that they’re hard to parse as a full sentence and are processed primarily as just chunks of words. At the end they add up to the very conversational, almost stammering statement, “Not to be, overly dramatic, I just think it’s best. Because you can’t miss what you forget. So let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me was never meant.”

The band’s chief songwriter, Mike Kinsella, makes his living as indie rock singer-songwriter Owen. The band broke up shortly after the debut LP was released in 1999, but the album just kept going, from mixtape to mix disc, via word of mouth and the Internet. When the band decided in 2014 to reunite for a quick tour, they thought they’d play a few small shows and go back to their lives. They did not anticipate multiple sold-out shows per city. The band has since released two followup LPs as of 2018.

The whole debut record is full of creatively composed arrangements and beautifully sad lyrics. For musicians, the song is a great puzzle to learn, for non-musicians it’s a warmly sad breakup song. In my case, given the person who introduced me to the song and the relationship we had, it’s both.

>> Download Never Meant or the album
American Football from

Perfect Songs – “Goldilox” by King’s X

There are any number of reasons why King’s X were never as huge as the bands they influenced (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) went on to become: Christian themes, a mohawked black guy for a lead singer, a sound too heavy for pop and too poppy for metal (Vocal harmonies and stratocaster crunch? Who wants that in their metal?). So their appeal was left primarily to the only groups of people who really care deeply about pure music: nerds and musicians[1]. Unlike hair metal, King’s X weren’t selling a lifestyle to the bored; unlike thrash or death metal, they weren’t selling a sense of strength to the powerless; unlike punk or alternative rock, they weren’t reactionaries against a mainstream. They were just another band from Texas, that vast crossroads where musical outlaws run roughshod across the borderlines of genres. Perhaps the primary thing, though, that made them so unmarketable was the simple fact that there has never been anything cool about sincerity.

Their painful sincerity is in full flower on “Goldilox,” the second cut on their debut album. It’s immediately recognizable to every nerdy boy who can’t talk to girls as their Theme Song. “I can’t believe summer’s
almost here / I made it through another year even if alone” is, in some shape or form, written in the diary of every socially awkward teenager. Couched in different timbres, it would be twee indie rock. But sung by a soul singer (did I mention the mohawk?) fronting a heavy rock trio on an album named after a C.S. Lewis book, it has some barriers to entry for normal folks. But that’s who they were: three misfit Christian kids (who met each other in Springfield, Missouri!) who liked the Beatles and hard rock.

The King’s X Marketing Predicament continues to the present day. They are forever the best kind of cult band, though: still making records, still accessible to their fans (Doug signed my bass!), still writing honest songs. It should also be noted that “Goldilox” is the closest thing to a conventional love song the band has ever written. After 15 albums, they’ve managed never to write anything resembling a ballad. They got it out of the way early on side 1 of their first album.

Buy Goldilox (LP Version) at

1.) Strip away all theatrics and fashion from popular music and you generally won’t find most teenagers. You’ll just find nerds, musicians and adults.