Music Reviews
So Beautiful or So What

Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What

(Hear Music) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

First, let’s deal with the hype.  We have to for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, it’s out there, and I see my role as someone who measures the promise versus the reality.  This might not have been necessary for Walter Benjamin, but in our media-saturated times I think it’s mandatory.  Plus, said hype was spurred directly by the artist himself, who gave interviews claiming a return to the songwriting technique he abandoned 30 years ago, one man and his guitar, which sent the nostalgia neurons firing for all those old enough to remember what this man once did with his guitar.  So if he fails, he deserves to be judged especially harshly for leading us on without an adequate payoff.  The good news is he hasn’t failed at all, even if he may be found guilty of indirectly promising something he never intended to deliver.

I know this because I had visions of Hearts and Bones or Still Crazy After All These Years dancing in my head after reading these statements. What that means to me is harmonically sophisticated and active songwriting of which few pop purveyors are capable.  Put plainly – lots of rich chords, one leading subtly to another in ways your ears understand immediately while your brain might ponder exactly how he did it.  That’s not what makes up this whole album, though thankfully it is present.  What we end up with is a mixture of both styles he has pursued, one based on rhythm, the other based on harmony.  The catchy stuff, as you might guess, is rhythm-based.  Getting Ready for Christmas Day, The Afterlife and So Beautiful or So What all fall into this camp.  They all end up being vamps around a single chord and the excitement comes from the melodies he spins out from home base and the syncopation the band generates.  Nothing wrong with that, its just what we come to expect from Simon post-Graceland.  But queue up Questions for the Angels, with its finger-picked guitar and modulation to the minor 7that 2:26 and you won’t be blamed if you get misty eyed thinking about how you used to play So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright to yourself in the dark.  But hey, if Graceland is more your taste you have the coiling guitars and pop perfection of Dazzling Blue to chew on. 

This whole “career summation” jazz doesn’t end there, because another major strain in Simon’s oeuvre is also present in abundance – the spiritual, gospel influence.  Love is Eternal Sacred Light is the most obvious example, harkening back to such genre forays as Gone at Last from Still Crazy.  But that’s just musical style.  It’s in the lyrics on this record where the influence is really felt.  Questions of belief, renewal, and Love with a capital L are all over the place.  When Paul sings “Thank God I found you” at the end of Love and Hard Times, the ambiguity of the addressee is apparent.  And you can tell that he passionately admires the faith of the black congregants he samples in Christmas Day, but as a Jewish New Yorker he finds himself separated from such commitment by ironic distance that comes from asking too many questions; the perpetual dilemma of my people.  But that’s why we have gospel singers AND Paul Simon, because probably, we need both. 

And if that weren’t all, Paul gives us his first solo guitar piece since, what, Anji in 1965?  That’s gotta be worth something.  What it all adds up to is unlike anything he has so far produced, which is to say that while it’s not strong enough to top the pleasures of his best records, it’s also occasionally deeper and more profound than just about anything else he has done.  Oh if only he could have married the two, we probably would be discussing one of the records of the decade.  As it is, we have a definite return to consistency, if not form, and a Paul Simon as simultaneously hermetic and engaged as only he can be.

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