Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What
With the recent release of his new album, So Beautiful or So What, it looks like 69-year-old Rhymin’ Simon still has a few songs up his sleeve. On a brilliant collection of the kind of Afro-pop, gospel and Creole-infused tunes that we’ve come to expect from the artist over the years, Simon focuses a noticeably large amount on mortality, but rarely in a dark, depressing way. Instead, he has “Questions for the Angels,” expectations (“The Afterlife”), and maybe a few regrets (“Rewrite”). He boils his life down to those things that really are important, like love, religion, nature, beauty, family, and making a really good pot of chicken gumbo, and he ditches the things that really don’t matter (“politics is ugly!” he says).
“Getting Ready for Christmas Day” kicks off the album with catchy, funky beats and some ridiculous sliding guitar work. There’s an unusual kind of back-up “singing” as it sounds to be more of a spoken-word spirited sermon, which adds a distinct gospel sense to it. “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” as the title may suggest, has a bit of a gospel feel as well. This song really evolves from one distinct section to the next, bringing forth wonderful, layered and varied percussion, a bit of harmonica and a great deal of happiness and soul. “Dazzling Blue” really is quite a gem too, with the kind of drum beats that Graceland is built upon and can even be traced back to “Cecilia.”
The last, title track on the album is a fine culmination of this whole record. His lyrics are so wise—smart, yet simple and straightforward (“Life is what you make of it/So beautiful or so what”) and then again, reflecting on his own inevitable mortality (“I’m going to tell my kids a bedtime story/A play without a plot/Will it have a happy ending?/Maybe yeah, maybe not”).
There are so many exceptional things to respect about Paul Simon—the way he re-imagines or re-invents existing musical styles, his ability to produce not just hit songs, but real album-oriented music, the complex, inventive beats and grooves he creates, and the poetic lyrics that accompany them.