Before we analyze this song, let us take a moment to acknowledge that it is simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written-- in any language, in any era. Each word, each note, is as pure and simple as the raindrops that begin and end the song.
Structurally, the song is a novella. This is a story that begins with a description of the circumstances of the storytelling itself, then proceeds to tell the story, then ends by connecting that story back to the present circumstances, with the idea of "and that's why I brought this up and am telling it to you now."
In this case: It starts with the image of "rain," then moves to a conflict between the life a songwriter has chosen and the woman he left behind, then ends with the songwriter comparing himself to the rain he opened with.
The movie Adaptation is about a man who is supposed to write a screenplay based on a novel, struggles with it, and ends up writing a screenplay about... a man who is struggling with writing a screenplay based on a novel. Here, Simon has Charlie Kaufman beat by several decades.
Struggling to write "words that tear and strain to rhyme," in New York, Simon misses Kathy, the woman he left behind in England. He had been there, and dated her, then came back to the States to capitalize on the success of the electrified remix of "The Sound of Silence."
Now, he is wondering if he made the right choice. He is trying to write some songs to support the remix in this album here (which is even titled after that song), songs of power and meaning.
Maybe the rain reminds him of famously rainy England (as Randy Newman once observed to a British reporter, "You'd have a great little country here if you could just roof it over."). But he keeps thinking back to Kathy-- "My thoughts are many miles away/ They lie with you." The word "lie" is a subtle pun on the expression "my thoughts lie elsewhere." More than that, Simon says, they are about lying in bed with Kathy and waking up with her.
It is easier to love than to live, Simon laments, or to make a living. Loving Kathy seems to easy, so effortless. Why is he breaking his brain over these songs? He's trying so hard to write important songs that the songs are becoming more important than the issues they are about.
He realizes he doesn't care about these issues... or if he does, he doesn't believe in his songs anymore-- he even calls them "songs [he] can't believe." He cares about Kathy. How can he focus on this album when he can only think of her?
Yet, he must write several more songs. Well, then... let's write about how hard it is to write "issue" songs when you can't think of anything other than this wonderful woman, and how hard it is to have to go through your day knowing you aren't doing that with her.
Thank goodness Simon had the courage to share his feelings as well as his thoughts. Because now we have a song about songwriting. About writing the songs you want to write instead of the ones you have to.
Only two of the songs unique to this album will make it on to Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. This is one of them. Funny how the songs you want to write resonate with listeners better than that other kind.
Simon ends the song with the line: "There but for the grace of you go I." The expression Simon plays with here is "There but for the grace of God go I," said when seeing someone in poor circumstances you realize might just as well be your own. By replacing God with Kathy, Simon again relates his struggle with religion and faith. Right now, it is not God getting him through, it's Kathy. And she's not there either.
[Note: There really was a Kathy. She's on the cover of the "Paul Simon Songbook" album of material he recorded in England.]
Next Song: Somewhere They Can't Find Me