Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What

Paul Simon
So Beautiful or So What

Perhaps it’s odd to say that a hugely acclaimed artist — one who has earned both massive audiences and critical acclaim — is underrated. But Paul Simon is that artist.

From his late ‘50s hit “Hey, Schoolgirl” to the campus folkie intelligence of Simon & Garfunkel, to his gripping 1970s solo albums, Simon would seem to have staked a full claim as one of the rock era’s finest songwriters and performers. Extending his interest in different kinds of music (already expressed by incorporating doo-wop, gospel and salsa into enduring pop song structures) with Graceland in 1986 and Rhythm of the Saints in 1990 deepened and cemented Simon’s stature. By the late 1980s, Simon owned two “Record of the Year” and three “Album of the Year” Grammys. This member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is underrated?

Audiences have loved great swaths of Paul Simon’s music with all their heart. But he has also famously failed — both his film One Trick Pony and his Broadway musical The Capeman were full-on flops — in a manner that makes people chide him for wanting to be more than a tunesmith. The truth, however, is that 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.

Graceland famously incorporated musicians and rhythmic elements from South Africa, but it’s often forgotten that the same album mixed in zydeco elements and featured lyrics that were daringly poetic. Saints used Brazilian rhythms and drummers but also carried over some of the South African musicians. Songs from The Capeman mashed up salsa and doo-wop intriguingly. And now we have a new record in that tradition — a pop album that is both serious and joyous, both beautiful and profound.

So Beautiful or So What does not have a dominant musical style. 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.

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?

“Love and Hard Times” is a complex tone poem, a beautifully orchestrated long-form melody that wanders sensuously. It starts with a simple tableaux: “God and His only Son / Paid a courtesy call on Earth / One Sunday mornin’.” Simon sings gently over a simple piano part, with strings creeping in subtly. Though “old folks wept for his love”, God says it’s time to leave, concluding that “these people are slobs here / If we stay it’s bound to be a mob scene.” And then the song turns. The narrator describes idyllic love at first sight, which is then met with hard times: “the rains came, the tears burned, windows rattled, locks turned.” Despite this, a dawn comes, a “bedroom breathes” and then “your hand takes mine / Thank God I found you in time.” It’s about as beautiful a song as Simon has ever written, if less direct and anthemic than something like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. It’s subtle and gripping and something you want to hear again and again.

“The Afterlife”, of course, posits the death of its narrator, finding that he is met at the gates to heaven by bureaucracy. “You got to fill out the form first / And then you wait in the line.” The music is a grooving and playful Afro-pop syncopation — which oddly enough fits the lyrics. The narrator may be dead, but he’s frisky, hitting on a homecoming queen with “sunshiny hair” with the classic line, “Hey, what ‘cha say / It’s a glorious day / By the way, how long you been dead?” Simon is having fun, but it’s serious fun. In this afterlife, we seek answers, but it’s still our fate to “suffer and wait”. And when you finally get “face-to-face in the vastness of space / Your words disappear.” The only thing you feel is “an ocean of love” and all you can ask about is the eternal question: “Is it Be Bop a Lula? / Or ooh Papa Doo?” The big questions, perhaps, just come down to rock ‘n’ roll in the end.

These queries into the eternal are balanced by and combined with tales of the everyday, the flesh, the domestic. “Dazzling Blue” mashes together Indian music with bluegrass fiddle as Simon sings about a marriage that transcends trouble. “Rewrite” also uses a world music groove, as a Vietnam vet thanks his muse for helping him to turn his painful memoir into something he might sell to Hollywood. The title track uses a delta guitar lick and driving drum clatter to tell a series of stories that suggest that regular life is suffused with wonder and randomness.

But summarizing these songs, songs I’ve heard a dozen times each in a few days but clearly need to hear more of, seems cheap. They’re not simple songs, as the music bounces off the lyrics in reverberant ways.

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.

Many of the reviews of So Beautiful or So What are saying that it is “his best since Graceland”. But with so many great and daring songs, with themes of love and worry and redemption and prayer, with a fusion of genres that summarizes and reconciles Simon’s vast career of different musical styles, well: maybe this is the best Paul Simon record, period.

It seems slightly painful to me that the CD booklet begins with an essay by Elvis Costello, which argues that So Beautiful “deserves to be recognized as among Paul Simon’s very finest achievements”. I agree. But the presence of this essay underlines my assertion that Simon — despite a resumé pretty much unparalleled in US music since 1955 — is not taken as seriously as he should be. Costello is a great songwriter, but I’m sure he would agree that Simon’s only possible equal is Bob Dylan.

So Beautiful or So What shouldn’t need an endorsement from some other rock icon. It not only comes from Paul Simon, but it is fully the equal of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon or Still Crazy After All These Years or Graceland. It may be less exuberant and therefore harder to love at first, but it delivers the goods just as surely. And with Paul Simon now old enough to face the ultimate questions and to do so with a stunning musical sophistication, it may just be a complete classic.

Why do I hedge? It is a complete classic: a great album in which to lose yourself even as it helps you to get found.

RATING 9 / 10