Originally Published on The Arts Fuse on May 28, 2011
Paul Simon adores tinkering with words. In the past, lyrics like “when the radical priest come to get me released, we was all on the cover of Newsweek” not only delighted listeners but conveyed clear, understandable components of a storyline generated by the entire song.
Today, Simon still has that penchant for wordplay, yet the components of his songs are more like snapshots than linear thoughts, a change that sometimes endears and sometimes frustrates.
On his latest album So Beautiful or So What (his first since 2006’s Surprise), Simon’s snapshots reflect his age. Approaching 70, Simon reflects on death, the afterlife, and appreciating the beauty of his time on earth in ways that interestingly parallel the melancholy on Paul McCartney’s last album, Memory Almost Full.
Given these challenging cosmic themes and a nonlinear style, it’s unsurprising that most of So Beautiful lack vivacity. Still, the album maintains Simon’s reputation as one of the best songwriters in the business.
In fact, So Beautiful features some of Simon’s finest tunes in years. These exceptional tracks bookend the album, eschewing the scatterbrained melancholy that mars the rest of the album. The most linear piece on the album, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” channels Simon’s zippy, adolescent energy. “Christmas” opens the record with a home-style, acoustic shuffle backed by clever samples of Georgian Reverend J. M. Gates’s 1931 sermon of the same title. Simon sings of anticipation for the holiday season, in spite of “money matters weighing [him] down,” long work hours, a nephew away in Iraq for the season, and memories of now-deceased family members.
The final track, “So Beautiful or So What,” is arguably Simon’s best in a decade. While the track doesn’t feature Simon’s trademark African rhythm section, which won him praise since Graceland, the opening guitar hook immediately grabs listeners. “So Beautiful” features his haphazard, fragmented style, jumping from Southern food to the insignificance of the individual and then to the vices of man, but the bits-and-pieces string together a message: Pursue beauty.
In between these two treasures, however, lie rather lackluster tracks. Each of the remaining tunes holds great promise or boasts a strong attribute (after all, it is a Paul Simon album), but the nebulous tussle with mortality becomes wearying, and Simon’s allusions to God become particularly repetitive as well, a trend that Simon claims was completely unintentional. He claims to write music subconsciously, without a particular predetermined direction, and so his “inadvertent” inclusion of religious themes suggests that Simon is using his music to grapple with fears of death—no doubt the beginning of a Boomer wave on the topic.
“The Afterlife” ponders an interesting premise: What sights and sounds will greet us at Heaven’s gates? Yet while the track features fine wordplay, the repetitive backing instruments and chorus overshadow its hallelujah promise. “Dazzling Blue” features Simon’s mastery of African polyrhythms to celebrate his belief of enjoying eternal happiness with his woman. Yet, despite the sexual passion Simon expresses in previous tracks, this piece features a surprisingly uninteresting set of lyrics. Perhaps the concentration on drum work distracted Simon.
In the same way, “Love in Hard Times” is beautifully direct, with Simon using a single note for his vocal part. Yet his ambiguous portrait of God and his Son visiting Earth, which then transitions to a focus on transcendent love, ending on a reunification with God in death, dissolves into confusion.
“Love is Eternal Sacred Light” is the best of the frustrating theological song set because it features a rhythm makeup similar to the bookend tracks. In addition, Simon utilizes unusual and unrecognizable percussion instruments to compare the timelessness of love with the age of the world: a moving juxtaposition, though not as poetic as Simon thinks.
Thus the album’s frustrating pattern—strong lyrics here, lacking instrumentation there, vice-versa—with “So Beautiful or So What” emerging as the triumphant tune that brings it all together. These tracks are not necessarily bad, it’s just that listeners expect the consistently inspiring from Simon. But maybe that is our hangup?
In any case, Simon isn’t likely to be bothered by those pointing out the record’s shortcomings. On the album’s YouTube page, Simon explains that he purposely avoided his tried-and-true African rhythmic premise on So Beautiful: He purposely emulated the scatterbrained, avant-garde style of The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper and other self-consciously arty albums. It was all on purpose. Perhaps at this point in his career, Simon is not concerned with satisfying the audience; instead, he wants to focus on creating music that nourishes himself. It would certainly reflect the theme of his album: Life is what you make of it: so beautiful . . . or so what.