paul simon "so beautiful or so what"
So Beautiful or So What
[Hear Music; 2011]
Find it at: Insound Vinyl | eMusic | Amazon MP3 & CD
On Graceland, "the bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio"; it's a "bomb in the marketplace" on So Beautiful or So What. The shift in strategy is minor, but those rhyming images speak to the 25 years separating these two albums: 1986 could be eons ago, or it could be yesterday. Those were the days of miracles and wonder, as Paul Simon entered his forties with humor and curiosity intact. These days, however, haven't been too kind: Even as his influence has grown, his output has suffered. After opening the millennium with the dull-by-obligation You're the One, he hired Brian Eno for 2006's Surprise, whose true surprise was that one of the most careful and rigid pop songwriters of the last 50 years could be just as rambling and self-indulgent as any other aging Baby Boomer.
To his considerable credit, however, Simon has never succumbed to a record with Rick Rubin or a Great American Songbook album, perhaps because his standards aren't pre-rock pop tunes. While there was a period when his South African and Brazilian excursions in the late 1980s were derided as exploitative, both Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints have proved enormously influential to a new generation of indie-pop songwriters from the Shins' James Mercer to Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig. Simon, who turns 70 this year, is still forging his own path even this deep into his career and remains devoted to and fascinated by old R&B, gospel, and world music. So Beautiful or So What blends them all into a pop sound that's simultaneously laidback and spry, almost self-consciously alluding to his past triumphs.
Replacing Brian Eno, long-time cohort Phil Ramone co-produces, and the pairing is comfortable, if not complacent. They've corralled a small band to suggest a live-in-the-room intimacy and spontaneity, and "Rewrite" and "Love Is an Eternal Sacred Light" crackle with energy. Some of the ambient elements from Surprise remain, but they're couched in the earthy rhythms of the percussion and the spidery guitars. His voice still strong, Simon shows off his own fretwork more prominently, especially on the short, sweet instrumental "Amulet". Only the sampled sermon on "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" sounds out of place; contemporary listeners may be more likely to connect it to Moby's pre-millennial techno-folk than to its true source material, a 1941 sermon by Reverend J.M. Gates.
Even as his band gets smaller, Simon's ideas grow larger. He's addressing enormous spiritual matters, specifically the nature of God. In "Love and Hard Times", He and Jesus show up for a surprise inspection of Earth, and it's a bit too precious until Simon interrupts and turns it into a sweet love song about love songs. God Himself narrates "Love Is an Eternal Sacred Light", bemoaning that humanity doesn't get his jokes, and Simon sounds more at home in His head than in those of the various New Yorkers who narrate "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" and "Rewrite".
So Beautiful or So What can be stodgy in its emotions and a bit too devoted to its motifs, but there's something humanizing about the album's shortcomings. It is, thank God, no attempt to get his affairs in order, an approach that turns so many older artists' albums into solemn, end-of-life affairs. Simon's not worrying over redemption on these spiritual inquests; he's much more concerned about what he'll do in heaven once he gets there. Turns out, he'll be listening to his favorite American tunes. In "The Afterlife", "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and "Ooo Poo Pah Doo" form a celestial language, which may be the album's most satisfying revelation.
Those reference points-- Gene Vincent and Jessie Hill, not to mention Ramone, Graceland, and King's assassination on the title track-- all well predate Y2K, which is not unexpected for an artist who spent half of the previous century making music. Simon's too preoccupied with the 20th century to settle into the 21st, but here's the thing: It suits him. After foundering when he tried to sound new and modern, Simon comes across as much more at ease and compelling in this familiar setting. He's like a novelist revisiting the particulars of his youth; like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, he wants to take in his times, and like John Updike, Simon cherishes small epiphanies, which resound like bombs in the marketplace. So perhaps the epiphany of So Beautiful or So What is that Paul Simon turns out to be a character in a Paul Simon song: An aging songwriter still struggling to connect, still figuring it all out, and still cranking the Dixie Hummingbirds.
1. getting ready for christmas
2. the afterlife
3. dazzling blue
5. love and hard times
6. love is eternal sacred light
8. questions for the angels
9. love and blessings
10.so beautiful or so what
from the album:
the afterlife http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVTlueB-ReI live
love and hard times http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CMvr19u2OU live
so beautiful or so what http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Op_rSKGYTo video