The song is about a lullaby, but we have to get to that in a minute. Because the song, while about a lullaby, is itself a prayer.
After all, it starts: "Oh Lord," and anything that starts that way is a prayer. And what is the insomniac's prayer? "Oh Lord, don't keep me up all night."
It'd be a lonesome vigil. The only other one up would be the Moon, what that only has "desolate eyes." And to journey all those "miles [to] the sunrise" with only such "sockets" as "travelling companions" [OK, so that's from "Graceland," but still] would be too much to bear.
But the darkness "invites" a tune. Simon has been personifying Darkness since he called it his "old friend" all those decades ago, and maybe now we finally know why they are so long acquainted. After all, Darkness would be an insomniac's friend, or at least a familiar face. Anyway, the tune the darkness invites seems to be this very tune.
While he is awake, he hears a "siren" sound "in the distance," but instead of being upset by it-- after all, it means someone is in trouble-- he calls it a "song." To let us know he is being facetious, he complains that the sound "rattles the old window frame."
And then, something unexpected happens: "Gradually, angels reveal their existence." So, they were there the whole time, only now they are letting themselves be seen. The fact that he does not elaborate about these divine visitors, as the listener might expect, leads us to believe that the thin wisps of light that must seep into his dark room resemble angels. "There's nothing and no one to blame," he says, worried that we might accuse him of abusing alcohol (etc.), or having a tumor, what with him seeing angels and all. Maybe he could see what was really causing these angelic apparitions if he put on his glasses..? Lack of sleep can cause hallucinations, after all.
Even if this is a prayer, these visions are not angels. If they were, the speaker would not be talking so much about being alone, as he does before when he says the "desolate" Moon is his only companion, and later when he... well, let's get to that part right now.
Now comes the prayer again. This time, the thing he fears is not the daunting distance until dawn but coldness of some sort also lasting a too-long time: "winter that lasts until June." This may be the lack of human companionship... at least the sort that is awake. So again, he's alone, with no angelic company. (Also, Simon just rhymed "Moon" with "tune" and "June" so slyly we didn't notice.)
Now, two choruses and a verse into the song, we finally learn what the Insomniac's Lullaby is. It's a song that turns out to be one word long:
Well, of course. What else do you need?
The next verse seems to be about death. "They say all roads lead to a river." While I have never heard "they" say any such thing (all roads lead to Rome, I thought) it is true that every major city is built around a river-- every city more than 100 years old, at least. A river was necessary as a source of water, but also transportation of people and goods.
But, "they" supposedly continue, "one day/ The river comes up to your door." Well, there are plenty of places that don't flood, so this must mean something else. What comes to every door? Only, as Franklin said, "death and taxes."
Hearing this axiom, the speaker asks, "How will the builder of bridges deliver us all/ To the faraway shore?" This is less sincere doubt than simple amazement. When watching a magic trick or feat of athletic prowess, we mutter, "How does he do it?" but only rhetorically.
This is a much nicer metaphor for death than some hooded skeleton reaping our souls with a huge blade, isn't it? A walk across a bridge, is all death is. (Or, if you're Jacob or Robert Plant, you may prefer a ladder or stairway.)
In the next iteration of the chorus, the speaker again asks for sleep, but now so that he can avoid having to face "questions [he doesn't] understand" and "wrestle [his] fears." This is completely understandable. Who wants to do that, all night?
"The sound in my ears/ Is the music that's sweeping the land/ The Insomniac's Lullaby." Maybe the "lullaby" is the agglomeration of sounds coming from everyone insomniac's radio and stereo. Or maybe it's his own radio, and he's listening to contemporary pop (on his headset, so as not to wake his wife) for inspiration. After all, a musician likes to stay current.
Finally, he arrives at dawn, the "light from the East." It is "soft as a rose," and that color, too. "As if all is forgiven," meaning that the questions and fears of the night are resolved, or at least feel that way.
"Wolves become sheep" at this time. The nocturnal animals, like wolves and burglars, are replaced by pleasanter ones, like sheep and ice-cream truck drivers. Also, the menacing gray clouds of night are supplanted by white, woolly ones.
It might be a reference to his song "Pigs Sheep and Wolves," but more likely it's a circling-back to the "Werewolf" of the opening track.
Alternately, one famous sleep aid is "counting sheep"; the idea of imagining sheep jumping a fence, and counting them doing so, is said to help one drift off. This connection of sheep and sleep is possible because of how the song ends: "We are who we are/ or we're not" but either way, "At least we'll eventually all fall asleep."
Like any good bedtime story, the song-- and the album-- end with a yawn and a "nighty-night."
Is the song about death? Is "we'll all fall asleep" about... the Big Sleep, as it is in Hamlet? I don't think so. There are no insomniacs when it comes to death, no "in-necr-iacs." Some people complain, "I just can't sleep," but no one complains, "I just can't die." So this is about sleep, and to the degree it is about the lack thereof, it is about the resolution of that issue.
It's also a very pretty song.
Simon has recently stated that he is retiring from music. If he is, he has earned it. But I can't imagine he is. Music has been his entire life. Now, he is 75. He just finished working on an album and touring the world in support of it. He's tired, is all, and he's talking like a tired person. Once he has a vacation, I bet we'll get another album-- or two-- out of him yet.
I just think that if he stops making music, he'll die. And he isn't ready to do that yet.
MUSICAL NOTE: Bobby McFerrin does the background vocals. In pop circles, he is considered a one-hit wonder because of the dippy-- but perfectly so-- song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." In jazz circles, he is considered a living legend and one of the greatest vocalists ever to live, able to create whole arrangements with just his voice and body slaps. In classical circles, he is that fun conductor who sings the notes along with the instruments and harmonizes with them. Just go on YouTube, type in his name, and enjoy.
Some of the instruments were invented by a man named Harry Partch, who could hear 43 tones to an octave; most mortals can hear only 12. So had to invent instruments to make those sounds. They have names like: cloud chamber bowls, sonic canons, kithara and the chromelodeon. The original instruments are at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, where the song was recorded.
Next Song: Like to Get to Know You