CD: Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What | New music reviews, news & interviews
CD: Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
Veteran tunesmith considers life, death, God and the universe
"How terribly strange to be 70", sang Simon and Garfunkel in "Old Friends", back in 1968. Paul Simon will be 70 in October, so this isn't a bad time for him to be taking a panoramic look at life, love, loss and the universe in this latest set of songs (it's his first since 2006's Surprise).
One of the things Simon has left far behind is his mid-Sixties sophomore self, who wrote earnest songs performed with worried sincerity. Today's wizened veteran is more wry and sardonic, but has reached greater understanding, as suggested in his prediction of what the hereafter will look like in "The Afterlife". Finding himself dead, he's waiting to see God, but finds that "you got to fill out a form first/ And then you wait in the line" before you're granted a few seconds of face time with the Deity. God's waiting room, it seems, is like signing on the dole, but at least they're playing "Be Bop a Lula" in the background.
On the other hand, the Divine may be all around us, right now. In "Love and Hard Times", God and Son pay "a courtesy call on Earth", but soon decide it's time to leave, since "these people are slobs here". Then the narrator finds his personal salvation in the blinding flash of a love affair, as if that's the closest we miserable sinners will ever come to comprehending life's greatest mysteries.
In collaboration with veteran producer Phil Ramone, Simon has created teeming moments of luscious detail throughout these tracks. "Love and Hard Times" is delicately daubed with strings, woodwinds, horn and acoustic guitar. In "Dazzling Blue", Simon lays sweet choruses over a light, shuffling beat amid shimmering guitars. "Amulet" is a brief, sparkling showcase for Simon's solo acoustic finger-picking. By contrast, opening track "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" is built over a scratchy old recording of a sermon by the Reverend JM Gates from 1941, which has the effect of framing the album in a mysterious limbo, somewhere between here and eternity.
Nonetheless, fans of a great pop tune may come away from the disc feeling short-changed. After all, this is the guy who wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" and many more peerless specimens of the tunesmith's art, but he doesn't write 'em quite like that any more, even if he has slipped a little echo of "Homeward Bound" into "Questions for the Angels". Ever since Graceland, Simon's songwriting has tended to start from rhythms and instrumental textures, frequently with an African flavour, rather than old-fashioned melodies and chord progressions, and that's often the case here.
For instance, the title track has been assembled from a repeated staccato guitar figure laid over an unswerving rhythm while assorted instruments and harmonies swirl vaporously behind Simon's vocal. "Rewrite" is one of the catchier pieces here, but more for its call-and-response vocal lines and push-and-pull rhythm than its melodic content. For all that, Simon still has something to say, and he's finding different ways of saying it.
Watch Paul Simon talking about the making of So Beautiful or So What
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