Paul Simon – [Album]

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

So Beautiful or So What is the epitome of aging gracefully. The CD deals with the big questions which come with the passage of time – “where have I come from,” “where am I going,” “what does it all mean?” – without expressing bitterness, despair or smugness. Not only does Simon approach these questions with a level temperament, he demonstrates that gaining wisdom is far different from having the answers.

The music which accompanies these ruminations is similarly graceful. A gentle combination of world music and American folk, it is somehow both sparse and hypnotic. It beautifully backs up the lyrics without ever overwhelming them, but also without becoming mere background. Throughout the record, instruments both familiar and exotic swirl forward and then fade away.

This is an album in a rapidly disappearing sense. That is, it is a coherent collection of songs which are meant to be listened to as a whole, in the presented sequence. There is a definite progression building from song-to-song until we arrive at the closest thing to a revelation Simon is willing to offer. While it may seem strange to praise a CD for being short, the forty-minute run-time means one can listen to it in a single sitting without getting distracted which is rare for a CD these days; lately, albums are usually overstuffed to make us feel like we are getting our money's worth. So Beautiful or So What proves that volume does not always equal value.

Therefore, it makes sense to go through So Beautiful or So What song by song.

The opening cut, "Getting Ready for Christmas," introduces the overall theme of the album: the points where the eternal intersects with the real. The "Christmas" of the title refers to much more than the holiday; it represents everything that awaits us. Simon samples a sermon from the Forties by Rev. J.M. Gates which makes this explicit. The sermon speaks to the eternal while Simon's lyrics – which refer to the recent economic recession and Iraq – depict today's reality. In matching the sermon with that reality, Simon manages to find hope in despair. I should also point out that this is one of the few non-ironic uses of a sampled sermon I have ever encountered in pop music.

"The Afterlife" presents that eternal future as something quite unlike our expectations. First Simon introduces it as a bureaucratic nightmare: "You've got to fill out a form first/ Then you wait in the line." More important though, in Simon's telling, even in the afterlife our ultimate questions are not answered: "It seems like our fate/ to suffer and wait/ for the knowledge we seek/ … but all that remains/ when you try to explain/ is just a fragment of song/ Is it be-bop-a-lulu or oom papa do?"

"Dazzling Blue" first introduces the wisdom Simon is aiming at: the role of love in all this. "Maybe love is an accident/ or destiny is true/ but you and I were born/ beneath a star of dazzling blue." This is set against an African rhythm reminiscent of Graceland, provided by tabla, dobro and fiddle.

In "Rewrite" Simon looks back on life, and one's wish to change things. He uses the metaphor of rewriting a screenplay to examine the regrets we all carry with us. "I'll eliminate the pages/ where the father has a breakdown/ and he has to leave the family,/ but he really meant no harm./ Gonna substitute a car chase/ and a race across the rooftops/ when the father saves the children/ and he holds them in his arms." This is all done with a gentle backing of Steve Shehan on djembe and glass harp, and Yacuba Sissoko on kota.

"Love And Hard Times" is one of the more complex songs lyrically, using a variety of images to explore the notion of love – both earthly and divine – as an antidote to (yes) hard times. It starts with a scene of "God and his only son/ [paying] a courtesy call on Earth one Sunday morning." God is eager to move on, "These people are slobs here/ if we stay it's bound to be a mob scene/ but disappear… and it's love and hard times." Then it moves on to Simon describing earthly love. The beauty and trauma of live on earth are described through subtle imagery, leading to the final affirmation of "Thank God I found you in time."

"Love is Eternal Sacred Light" approaches the final answer, but things are still not simple. The  song moves from a sped-up litany of creation, "Earth becomes a farm/ farmer takes a wife/ wife becomes a river/ and giver of life/ man becomes machine/ oil runs down his face/ machine becomes a man/ with a bomb in the marketplace," to a description of God driving a "brand new pre-owned 96 Ford" listening to the radio, saddened by what he hears and sees, but assuring us he still loves us all. And then back to the hopeful chorus, "Love is eternal sacred light/ free from the shackles of time.” All of this to a rocking, boogie beat.

"Amulet," an acoustic guitar solo from Simon, offers a moment of space and reflection among all this philosophizing.

In "Questions for the Angels" Simon returns to the big questions, though not so much the questions themselves as our need to ask them. It moves from "Who believes in angels/ Fools and pilgrims all over the world" to "Who believes in angels?/ I do." Simon still thinks/ hopes someone will provide the knowledge he seeks.

On the final two songs, Simon gets as close as he can to those answers. "Love and Blessings" assures us that "Love and blessings/ simple kindness/ ours to hold/ but not to keep." The music moves from Simon's bluesy electrical guitar in the verses, to a sample (yes, another sample) from the Golden Gate Jubilee Chorus on the choruses, revealing the tension between approaching these questions alone versus as part of a social group. Then the title song wraps it all up, "Life is what we make of it/ So beautiful or so what?"

Even in my close examination of every song, I have only been able to scratch the surface of the lyrical and musical richness and complexity of this album. The depths of Simon's songwriting here amazes me anew with every listen. So Beautiful or So What is, by far, Simon's strongest album since Graceland. It reflects on those things we all wonder about, and does so with incisive yet humorous lyrics and gorgeous music.



So Beautiful or So What is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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