In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re highlighting the songs we’ve listened to the most this year from our iTunes or on our Spotifys, Rdios, or stereos.
Paul Simon, “The Obvious Child” (1990)
I first heard “The Obvious Child” earlier this year and, though I had spent 24 years of my life not knowing it existed, I’ve more than made up for lost time. The track, which served as the inspiration for the title of Gillian Robespierre’s feature film debut, Obvious Child, is the kind of track you can’t help but dance to. That’s probably why Robespierre uses it in a key scene where new acquaintances Donna (Jenny Slate) and Max (Jake Lacy) drunkenly shimmy and shake in their underwear to the galvanizing drums. The scene is hysterical, kinetic, and outrageously endearing—it nestled the song deep in my brain and I haven’t stopped bobbing my head to it since.
Following the success of Graceland, which was influenced by the sounds of South Africa, Paul Simon did some traveling through South America and was particularly tickled by the bombastic, repetitive drumming of Olodum, an Afro-Brazilian cultural group. For his 1990 album The Rhythm Of The Saints, Simon recorded Olodum performing live and later structured some of his tracks around the group’s rhythms. Album opener “The Obvious Child” is the perfect confluence of the wild, frenetic drumming and Simon’s folksy melodies. The drumbeat drills right from the beginning and never lets up, only softening every so often to let Simon’s poetic lyrics soar.
As is typical for a Paul Simon tune, “The Obvious Child” constructs a clear narrative, but uses intentionally vague metaphors to keep things open for interpretation. What is the “obvious child,” anyway? In one of the song’s more direct passages, he sings “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.” It’s clear Simon is interested in the passage of time and he seems to be addressing identity, how it is shaped, and how you eventually make peace with who you are. You spend your life working toward becoming something and then one day you realize—wait—you are something. Is it what you wanted to be? Is there something you could’ve done differently?
For me, the “obvious child” is the past and there’s no sense in denying or regretting it. “The Obvious Child” is introspective, sure, but I think it’s ultimately a celebration of life, and living, and now. It’s been quite a year of change for me and I may feel lost from time to time, but when that drum line kicks in, I feel electrified and in-the-moment. My most played song of the year is over 20 years old, but it’s never stopped reminding me what it’s like to be alive right now.