Album review: Paul Simon’s ‘So Beautiful or So What’
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More bad news for the recently deceased: According to Paul Simon, the afterlife is a bureaucratic bummer as bad as the DMV.
The second song on his first solo album in five years, the deeply philosophical “So Beautiful or So What,” kicks off with one of the most memorably deadpan lines in Simon’s already-packed canon: “After I died and the make-up had dried, I went back to my place.”
To crack open a celestial beer? Not so much. From there, “The Afterlife,” with its zydeco-inflected shuffle, paints a picture of the freshly dead filling out forms and waiting in line to catch “a glimpse of the divine.” Ah, but the vast unknown is a slippery beast. “All that remains,” Simon sings, “when you try to explain is a fragment of song.”
Pushing 70, Simon has mortality on his mind: the grand zigzag of life, the decisions we make or that make us, the accident or destiny of love and the big questions that can’t be answered. After all is said and done, Simon seems to say on his 12th solo album, there’s only love and beauty, both of which can reach their ecstatic heights in music.
More than two years in the making, “So Beautiful or So What,” steeped in Afropop and American folk forms, climbs some of the most resplendent summits of Simon’s career and ranks as his most consistent solo effort since “Rhythm of the Saints” from 1990. A pursuit of the sublime has marked Simon’s best work, but the mission is more forthright here, achieved with a banquet of lush instrumentation that Simon helped spread to American pop with his 1986 landmark, “Graceland.”
Whether it’s with the West African kora harp, the djembe drum and angklung (a bamboo instrument often played in Balinese temples) in “Rewrite” or the tabla and clay pot rhythms in “Dazzling Blue,” Simon harnesses gorgeous, unusual instruments. Bass is almost entirely absent, keeping the album, a feat of studio refinement from Simon and co-producer Phil Ramone, sonically light. Simon’s voice, in remarkable shape, is an everyman totem in the multiethnic landscape, like finding Levi’s in a South Asian market.
“So Beautiful or So What” isn’t without its puzzling moments. The latter half of the 10-song collection occasionally drags or gets a little syrupy. It’s hard to title a song “Questions for the Angels” and not court the scented-candle mysticism of the local New Age bookstore, but it’s executed with austere commitment. “Questions” also contains one of Simon’s most humorous asides; a pilgrim’s journey in Brooklyn is interrupted by seeing Jay-Z, a deity to some, on a billboard with a child on each knee.
On a few songs, Simon has incorporated samples for the first time. In some cases, the samples are subtly employed, like when he weaves in the submerged harmonies of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in “Love and Blessings” and a harmonica solo from bluesman Sonny Terry in “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” a barnburner haunted by a techno pulse.
In the rousing “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” Simon uses portions of a sermon from the Rev. J.M. Gates, one of the most recorded preachers of the early 20th century, with his own lyrics about a kid in Iraq back for a third tour of duty. With long measures of the call-and-response sermon tangling with Simon’s compelling guitar work, it feels clumsily applied but the gospel sentiment follows suit with the album. Tellingly, the samples are all from genres of mostly bygone American recordings, left to blow away with time if not resuscitated by archival labels like Dust-To-Digital, specifically its collection, “Goodbye, Babylon” that Simon has lauded in interviews.
Residing in the Connecticut countryside with his singer-songwriter wife, Edie Brickell, Simon isn’t interested in the current mainstream. At one point he grouses in “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” — playing the Almighty, no less, driving along in “a pre-owned ’96 Ford” — that the pop-music station “don’t sound like my music to me.” For Simon, the divine isn’t in the persistent hook of pop music but in the most far-reaching of global folk, where sounds, structures and techniques long ago abandoned can be employed in the service of something new and unknown.
“So Beautiful or So What”
Three and a half stars