Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What: album review

Among the elite artists of the 1960s that are still creatively active (Dylan, Young, Clapton, McCartney, etc.) a very good case could be made for Paul Simon for making the most satisfying and interesting music of the past decade. Simon’s previous album, 2006’s Surprise, found him taking his music in previously unexplored directions thanks to the electronic soundscapes provided by Brian Eno. The result was one of Paul Simon’s strongest albums in decades.

Now, five years later, after a successful Simon & Garfunkel tour that was cut short by Garfunkel’s voice problems, Paul is back with another fine collection of tunes. This time around there is a sense of familiarity around the sound, but it still sounds fresh and inspired.

The album kicks off with a rather unlikely candidate, a Christmas song. Getting Ready For Christmas features an amiable blues stomp, samples from a 1940s preacher and a party atmosphere. On the surface, it’s a light-hearted romp, but the lyrics eventually touch on the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s followed by The Afterlife, a bouncy tune about waiting in line to meet your maker after you’ve kicked the bucket.  The writer finds himself queuing up alongside Buddha and Moses while a jaunty South African-style guitar line drives the melody home. Both tunes seem to employ a phasing technique that becomes increasingly annoying after a few listens. Fortunately Simon and veteran producer Phil Ramone abandon this idea after track two.

The African-style vibe continues through the next few tracks inviting comparisons to Graceland. Sure enough, the easy-going Dazzling Blue sounds a bit like Under African Skies and Rewrite has the same conversational vocal style as You Can Call Me Al. What Rewrite and several other tracks do is show off what a fabulous guitar player Paul Simon is. His shimmering acoustic guitar runs are a pleasure to experience.

Now that Simon is in his 60s, it’s inevitable that age, mortality and life’s big questions will be addressed in his songs. The pastoral Love And Hard Times finds God and his son returning to Earth one Sunday morning and then Simon deftly turns the tune into a love song. He seems to be allowing his mind to wander during the song, not unlike his 60s classic At The Zoo.

After the rhythmic Love Is Eternal Sacred Light, and the brief instrumental, Amulet, the album tends to focus on more conventional acoustic singer-songwriter structures, with the African influence less noticeable. Again tunes like Questions For The Angels, Love And Blessings and the title track find Simon musing on life’s big questions. There’s more excellent guitar playing on Questions For The Angels and a delicate soprano sax solo on Love & Blessings.

The album closes with the title track. It begins with a guitar riff reminiscent of Mrs. Robinson and then kicks into gear. Simon decides “life is what we make of it”, not particularly profound, but when it is presented in such a musically satisfying way, who cares?

While not as ground-breaking as Surprise, So Beautiful Or So What finds Paul Simon to be as musically and lyrically relevant as he has ever been.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Rewrite from So Beautiful Or So What: