Something so…..Beautiful from Paul Simon
So Beautiful or So What?
By Paul Simon
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
“Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking Value for the price
And play a game with time and love
Like a pair of rolling dice”
– Paul Simon
Aching for some real music?
Ten songs. Killer melodies. Great lyrics. Clocks in at around 40 minutes. Would have fit nicely on two sides of an old lp. ‘So Beautiful or So What?’, Paul Simon’s newest release is ‘all killer, no filler’ as they used to say and is – as much as anything else – a tribute to the lost art of making a perfect record album.
There are no bonus tracks, demo versions or remixes. Just songs. Carefully crafted, beautifully played and produced songs. This hasn’t always been the case with Paul Simon’s solo work. Along with classic records like ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ ‘Graceland’ and ‘Surprise’, there has certainly been a share of disappointments. All but Simon’s most diehard apologists must grudgingly admit that he’s released albums that were simply too clever, self-absorbed or listless for their own good. Still, the 69 year old songwriter has been on a bit of winning streak of late as both ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ and ‘Surprise’, his 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno fit comfortably alongside the very best work of his career.
Whereas ‘Surprise’ was impressive primarily due to the carefully orchestrated relationship that was established between Simon’s lyrics and Eno’s soundscapes, the songs on ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ hearken back to an earlier period in the songwriter’s work. The almost symphonic complexity of ‘Surprise’ has given way to songs whose beauty and melodies rest on simple guitar and piano phrases. Yet, fans of his more rhythmic, world music influenced albums shouldn’t despair. For all the emphasis on traditional western pop melodies this time out, there are so many killer rhythms percolating through the subtext of these songs that one realizes that Simon’s decades long experiments with world music has been no mere dalliance or exercise in dilettantism. Songs like ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ or ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ that may have seemed like novelty items when they were first released occupy far more than a back room in Simon’s musical imagination. They’ve become an integral part of his artistic identity and have undeniably influenced how he hears and conceives music. Any of the accusations of appropriation or resorting to gimmicks that may have been leveled against him over the years are clearly no longer valid. Whether it’s the South African guitar melodies conjured by Vincent Nguini throughout the album or the great Yacouba Sissoko’s kora on ‘Rewrite’ or the simple Indian percussions that define the beat on ‘Dazzling Blue’, the ‘exotic’ elements in these songs are never jarring, forced or dispensible.
‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’ – the track that opens ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ may scare some people off at first. With a ferocious committed reverberating guitar riff that sounds like my parent’s old belt drive turntable warming up and its oddly seasonal lyrics, it’s immediately obvious that Paul Simon had no intention of walking through this recording session. Built on a sampled sermon from Reverend J.M. Gates recorded in 1941, Simon sets the tone as his uplifting guitar lines jostle with God and the devil channeled through the sensibilities of Greil Marcus’ Old Weird America. Past and present lock as sounds we’ve all heard are referenced on modern instruments and the rhythms kick start Simon’s biting stream of consciousness lyrics that rip through everything from modern warfare to God and chicken dinners eaten on Christmas Day on a hilltop in Pakistan. This initially awkward sounding opener assumes power as it builds to become a committed roar out of the gates as Simon’s pithy insights and wicked turns of phrase pick up momentum as the song comes to a close.
From the second song on, there’s no stopping Simon as his imagination kicks into high gear with ‘The Afterlife’ – a song which chronicles a heaven in which ‘Buddha and Moses and all the noses from narrow to flat/Had to stand in the line Just to glimpse the divine’ – after filling out the requisite forms. As on ‘Surprise’, spirituality seems to be in the forefront of Simon’s mind as he sings of God, the eternal and oceans of love where the current is strong. Topics which a more inexperienced or less confident writer would stumble upon, he glides through with perfect poise and an edge that lets his listener know that he doesn’t know all the answers either.
As with all of Simon’s work, the songs are not all concerned with eternal themes and mysteries of life. There are daily struggles aplenty described here. Figuring out love and loss, an old guy working at a car wash that everybody says ‘hasn’t got a brain cell left since Vietnam’ who secretly works on his ‘rewrite’ – these are the dreams chronicled on ‘So Beautiful Or So What.’ These are songs about the struggle to feel comfortable in our skins as we struggle and strive for moments of beauty and grace amongst the mundane things we do simply to survive and maintain a small modicum of self-respect.
‘So Beautiful Or So What’ ends with the title track – a song that may be the best thing he’s written in decades – which reminds the listener that ‘life is what you make it’ and that even if we’re ‘raindrops in a bucket’ or feel like ‘an empty house on weed street’, we can still choose to come up on the side of beauty. With this record, Paul Simon certainly has. This one will have his old fans doing backflips. There’s no ‘so what’ about it.
This article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates