I like to think that this song is about the struggle to keep an old car going. Obviously, I know that Paul Simon isn’t referring to a car that can’t run: to some shitbox destined for the crusher because the only appropriate description left is “ran when parked.”
In this version of this particular song, Paul Simon describes what it feels like to get old. And getting old, as our dailies might know, is far from being a uniquely human trait. This song was originally released as the second track from Simon’s eighth studio album, The Rhythm of the Saints. The album was released in 1990, and at the time, Simon was a spry 50-years old.
This version is from the more recent album In the Blue Light, released in 2018 — a full 28 years after Simon first recorded the track. Meaning Simon was 77-years old when Blue Light came out. That’s a lot of miles!
The album is a short collection of previously-released Paul Simon songs, reworked and accompanied by a new set of musicians, which sometimes gives the songs a different character. At other times, it expresses their character much more honestly — hindsight being 20/20.
It’s only fitting, then, that the cover of In the Blue Light is a portrait of the same man fixed in different places of the foreground and background. The man closer to us is a blur: he’s hardly intelligible, just barely taking shape. The man behind him is in focus, but is nonetheless obscured. It’s a neat visual expression of the album’s conceit.
This version of “Can’t Run, But” was arranged by Bryce Dressner from The National. In it, Simon sounds older, sounds tired. His voice is still undoubtedly that of Paul Simon, but it’s different. It’s laden with time. Which is why it’s such a surprise just how much the track rocks! The strings and flute give it a sort of bounce, a high-pitched skipping that clearly says, “I’m not as fast as I once was, but I am still alive.” And I think that’s the least many of us want for our dailies.