Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music, 2011)

For nearly half a century, Paul Simon has been writing thought-provoking songs, with lyrics that generally take more than the usual amount of listens to fully digest.  His latest album So Beautiful or So What, only his fourth in the last twenty years, finds Simon taking a more spiritual tone than normal.  But otherwise, he's very much up to his old tricks.

Simon begins the album with two songs that combine a quest for contact with God with a strong sense of irony.  His lyrics on the opening song "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" are sung from the perspective of a man working two jobs just to afford presents, whose nephew is once again likely to spend the holiday in a combat zone in the Middle East. Inserted between the verses is a 1941 field recording of a Baptist sermon on the religious significance of the holiday.  "The Afterlife" is an amusing story about waiting for the ultimate meeting with God, only to be completely overwhelmed and incoherent when you get there. The religious and spiritual themes re-emerge later on in the album as well, with "Questions for the Angels" being particularly effective. Simon asks, "If you shop for love in a bargain store and don't get what you bargained for, can you get your money back?" The listener is left to ponder the answer.

The musical arrangements on So Beautiful or So What reflect the many different phases of Simon's career.  There is some fine acoustic guitar work, a couple of more upbeat rockers, and a few songs flavored by the music of Africa.  "Amulet" is a quick instrumental, showcasing Simon's underrated guitar playing. Simon goes electric on "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" and "So Beautiful or So What," which simmer with an intensity not often heard on Simon's work. "Dazzling Blue" and "Rewrite" recall Simon's Graceland album (I refuse to believe that was twenty-five years ago already), although the easy groove and the presence of the kora on "Rewrite" indicate that Simon's African musical voyage has moved north to Mali. His understanding of African music has reached the point where he can do the guitar parts himself, and again his playing is really exceptional.

So Beautiful or So What may not have any songs that would make the short list of Paul Simon's very best, but it's a consistently good album throughout.  Simon remains one of the most dependably interesting and compelling songwriters making music.  It was true in the sixties, and it's still true now. This is easily his strongest work since Rhythm of the Saints. I hope for his sake that he no longer finds it terribly strange to be 70 (he'll reach that milestone later this year), but at any rate he's still quite capable of making a quality record.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Paul Simon discusses the songs on his new album.

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