This is one of Simon's best, strongest songs. It ranks-- in terms of its sheer poetic quality, its moving melody, and its profound insights-- with his finest work overall.
Does Simon believe in God? Well, that depends on what you mean by "believe in." In the sense of "Do you believe in angels?" it seems so. In the sense that a coach means when he says, "I believe in you," to a nervous little-leaguer, perhaps not. Even in his first song with Garfunkel, "Bleecker Street," he believed that there was a "fog" that "hides the Shepherd from His sheep."
Yet, here, it seems Simon does believe in, does put stock in, prayer! It may seem disingenuous to say that prayer works if God is unresponsive. But again, it depends on what you mean by "works." Does God answer all prayers the way we wish? Well, no. Does praying help us feel better? It can.
The speaker, probably Simon himself, starts here by delineating the difference between peacetime and wartime prayers. Peacetime prayers, he says, focus on "appeals for love"-- maybe romantic, or familial, or even Divine-- or "love's release," a less clear idea. Is this a release from love? Does it mean that we pray to stop loving someone, or that they stop loving us? Or is this "release" in the sense of salvation-- yes, we have love, but we wanted it to save us, and it has not! (And perhaps it is a release of a more, ahem, physical nature.) In any case, peacetime prayers are "silent" and "private" and seem to take safety for granted, now upping the request for fulfillment.
Simon, unlike Springsteen, did not write an immediate response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging when he wrote and published this song, with what seems a clear reference to those attacks-- "the fires"-- which targeted his beloved New York.
In an post-9/11 world, "people hungry for the voice of God"-- one of commanding reassurance-- "hear lunatics and liars." These unspecified miscreants must include politicians, pundits, and clergy of all faiths, all in full-throated condemnation of each other, accepting no blame unto themselves.
So these days, we have "wartime prayers," given "in every language"-- including ours and those of our enemies! And not for love, anymore, but "For every family scattered and broken." All sides in a war send soldiers away... and either do not receive them back at all... or the same. Such families no longer take basic safety for granted. No longer is the prayer "please let him/her love me," but "please let him/her not get blown up."
Having defined his terms, Simon dismisses the notion that he has any answers to the situation, even cynical, public relations-style ones: "I don't pretend that I'm a mastermind with a genius marketing plan."
He does, however, lay out his personal plan of action. He acknowledges that prayers are not accepted from a less than pure heart: "You cannot walk with the holy if you're just a halfway decent man."
First, let us pause to find the source of this expression, "walk with the holy." In the early part of The Book of Genesis, we meet Noah, who it says is "a man of righteousness, perfect in his generation." The next line? "With God walked Noah." Noah was a man who also lived at a time of great destruction, yet was able to rise above it, both figuratively and literally.
Back to our speaker. What is the plan for achieving a higher state of decency, and thereby, holiness? To seek a source of "wisdom," to "rid [his] heart of envy," and "cleanse [his] soul of rage." So it is a matter of adding some more knowledge and insight, making room for these by ridding himself of some distasteful traits (that happen to be two of the Seven Deadly Sins, "rage" and "wrath" being synonyms).
"Wisdom" is more than just "intelligence," the ability to think. And it is more than "knowledge," the accumulation of facts. Wisdom is the result of the application of intelligence to knowledge-- what you think about what you know. This is such a laborious process that the speaker is willing to settle for "a little drop" of wisdom! (John Gorka's song "Wisdom" is very good discussion on this matter.)
"Envy" is the wanting of what someone else has. Not just ambition, wanting what you don't have, but wanting you to have it... and them not to. And "rage" is such a high level of indignation that one becomes undignified altogether. So both are self-consuming passions, devouring much while producing nothing.
Returning to current events, yes, there are wars, repression, and recession, "But everyone knows/ all about hard times." So what's your plan to cope? "Well, you cry and you try to muscle through/ And try to rearrange your stuff." Realizing your powerlessness over global events, you focus on yourself and your immediate world. (This passage echos the Serenity Prayer, which speaks of the "serenity to accept what I cannot change" and the "courage to change what I can.")
But then comes the breaking point. When that is reached: "We wrap ourselves in prayer." And so Simon comes back to his theme.
The image of "wrapping" oneself "in prayer" may come from the religion Simon was born into-- Judaism. The Jewish prayer shawl is called a "talit" (tah-LEET) in Hebrew, from a word meaning "to cover." To don the shawl, one wraps oneself in it, pulling it across one's shoulders all the way around one's bowed head. Once so cocooned, one utters the blessing regarding the commandment "to wrap" ourselves in this garment.
Nevertheless, the metaphor of being wrapped in prayer is so easily understood that the Jessy Dixon Singers are able to sing the line in soaring gospel harmony without, one assumes, guessing that it may have a specific ritual origin, let alone a Jewish one.
The song closes with none of the global geopolitics or moral philosophizing of the above verses. Rather, we see a "mother" allowing her babies to share her bed; she is falling asleep and "draws [them] closer." She nuzzles and "kisses" them. Then, "To drive away despair/ She says a wartime prayer."
Where is her husband? If this is the prayer she whispers, hers must be one of those "families scattered and broken." So he is at war.
Perhaps the babies are in the bed for their sake; they might be having nightmares with him gone. Or maybe they are there for her. Maybe she needs them close because of her own loneliness and fear; she is also at the point of "all that she can bear."
Does prayer work? It must, on some level. Otherwise, we would not keep doing it after thousands of years. As long as there are love and war, it seems, there will be prayer. Whether Anyone is listening or not.
Jessy Dixon, along with his backup singers, performed with Simon in many contexts, including on his television special, on Saturday Night Live, and his Still Crazy and Live Rhymin' albums. Dixon died in 2011 of cancer, but not before writing for female superstars like Diana Ross, Cher, and Natalie Cole.
On piano is Herbie Hancock, a jazz legend. While he played with the challenging Miles Davis, he was remarkably accessible in his own work, integrating electronics and funk into jazz. He had a hit video with his instrumental "Rockit," and in 2008 won the Album of the Year Grammy for a Joni Mitchell tribute album.
Next song: Beautiful