The title of Paul Simon’s newest solo release, So Beautiful Or So What, suggests two extremes for life as we know it. In actuality, the characters that inhabit Simon’s profound songs on this album actually spend most of their time in the middle ground, somewhere between hope and heartbreak, between grace and grime.
And each one, in their seemingly mundane wanderings through this world, proves to be endlessly fascinating.
I admit that I had kind of lost track of Simon’s solo career. The songs that I did hear from his most recent albums, the most recent of which was 2006’s Surprise, seemed to lack the spark of both his initial solo work in the early '70s and his mid-80s, Graceland-fueled renaissance, so it didn’t seem worth the effort to seek out the rest. But this album is a marvelous combination of tempered anguish and wry humor, clear-eyed and poetic in its assessment of everything from suicide bombers to global warming to Christmas shopping, with the kind of world-weary wisdom that only 70 years on this planet can produce.
Simon builds most of the songs here around his acoustic guitar, but, as always with him, this is no mere folky strumming. The guitar in his hands in a rhythmic instrument first and foremost, propelling some songs into head-swaying, hip-shaking territories, while holding others back so you have time to stop and think.
And Simon has always been underrated in his ability to create a memorable recording. From “Me And Julio” to “You Can Call Me Al”, his songs have a way of jumping out of speakers, and opening track “Getting Ready for Christmas” brims with energy that artists just a third of Paul’s age simply can’t conjure. The rest of the tracks each create their own unique sound, which can’t be taken for granted in an era of musical homogeneity.
As a songwriter, Simon has always embodied his characters with unrivaled skill, and he’s at the top of his game in that respect throughout the album. The addled car-wash worker/aspiring novelist in “Rewrite” has literary dreams that he knows will never compensate for all that he’s lost in his life. On “Questions For The Angels”, a middle-aged man strolls across the Brooklyn Bridge searching for heavenly help, only to be confronted with a Jay-Z billboard for a reply.
The balance between lighthearted and powerful elements on the album is deftly handled. “Afterlife” sounds like something Randy Newman might have concocted, as a new entry to heaven finds that bureaucratic hassles aren’t just confined to Earth. Contrasting that, “Love And Hard Times”, featuring delicate piano, fluttering strings, and an ever-shifting melody, turns from a fable about a temporary visit from God and Jesus into a moving testament to cherishing the one you love in the face of worldly tumult.
There really are relatively few stumbles here. Simon’s voice may not be as supple as it once was, but it fits the material perfectly. And if the whole affair seems a bit restrained musically, well, again, that’s in line with the message. Simon does finally rock out a bit on the bluesy title track to close out the album, bemoaning human frailty: “Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant, how we seek out bad advice/How we jigger it and figure it, mistaking value for the price/And play a game with time and love like a pair of rolling dice.”
Ain’t that the truth. But, then again, truths abound on this album, which, in an age of artifice, is downright revelatory.
The knee-jerk reaction to So Beautiful Or So What will be to call it Simon’s best album since Graceland, and, technically, that may be true. But that seems like mitigating praise for an album that deserves to be celebrated in its own right as an example of the way a master songwriter can take the temperature of his times no matter his age.