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Friday, April 15, 2011

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What

There has always been more to Simon than what was easily embraced, and that work—including his new, scintillating So Beautiful or So What—is much of his finest music.

The sound of So Beautiful is a kaleidoscope that moves from throbbing Graceland guitar to South Asian grooves on tablas to gentle ballads that incorporate harps, to outright rockers that are nevertheless flavored with bluegrass elements or even subtle atmospherics such as the sound of ringing phones, an old sermon, or an atonal glockenspiel. These elements, however, are juggled and mixed with great care and balance. So Beautiful is a not a pu-pu platter of styles but rather a summation of a great musician’s many interests. It coheres because the sounds serve the songs.

And the songs themselves are united utterly, thematically obsessed with the largest and most intriguing questions that art can tackle. Read my full PopMatters review of So Beautiful or So What right HERE.

By all accounts, Paul Simon—born in Newark, NJ, as a Jew during World War II—isn’t a deeply religious man. But So Beautiful relentlessly comes back to the notion of God (and frequently a Christian God) and to the value of love. But this is not the equivalent of Dylan’s born-again Slow Train Coming. Rather, Simon uses Christian iconography to raise spiritual questions of the most philosophical sort: Is there an order to life? Is there anything beyond this life? Are there sure answers to important questions? What redeems us, flawed though we are?

At least two songs here seem like outright Simon classics. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” sets up a strange delta groove, and Simon’s sung verses about regular folks facing Christmas amidst adversity alternate with segments of an old sermon (with the call-and-response of a congregation) about both the terror and the glory of what might be waiting for various people. It’s an ingenious and ambiguous piece of art.

Even better is “Questions for the Angels”, a song that begins as an impossibly lovely song about a “pilgrim” wandering through New York. On the one hand, it is a very specific story song, and on the other hand it gets to abstractions such as “Who am I in this lonely world?” The song shifts halfway through to become a jaunty waltz, but that is just how Simon hears his music now—unrestricted and able to surprise you even as it casts a specific spell.

So Beautiful or So What is a complete classic—an album in which to lose yourself even as you get found.

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