On the cusp of 70, well into a life of musicmaking that has spanned almost the entire history of American pop, Paul Simon has delivered an album that is easily among the very best of his career and certainly the richest since “Graceland” arrived a full quarter century ago.
“So Beautiful or So What” is not just a vibrant collection of quintessential Simon compositions, it’s a reminder of the power of popular song to express the universal, to shape meaning into melody and to serve up rhythm and rhyme in irresistible fashion. Simon accomplishes all of that on this 10-song album, beginning with the loping opener, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” and continuing to the beguiling title track that brings the effort to a satisfyingly unsatisfying close.
Despite its relative brevity — it wraps up in less than 40 minutes — this is an album with much to say. Death, God, love, even the history of the universe get their due.
Did we mention love? Simon does. Often.
An ocean of love. Love as an accident. Old love. Love at first sight. Eternal love. Sacred love. Love as a game. There are enough utterances of love to make you wonder whether Simon is getting a product placement fee. Somehow, though, the repetition doesn’t feel repetitive. Instead, the word gains weight with each mention, its meaning deepens, its power surges. When, against a buoyant backdrop of electric guitars and pulsing percussion, Simon sings, “Love is eternal sacred light / Free from the shackles of time / Evil is darkness, sight without sight / A demon that feeds on the mind,” the lines feel like a testament of faith, a prayer.
There is much else that feels prayerful on this album. A spiritual quest, perhaps spurred by thoughts of mortality, is evident in such songs as “Love & Blessings” and “Love and Hard Times.” On “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” a pure expression of spiritual preparation, Simon alternates his verses with a recording of a rousing sermon from 1941 by the Rev. J.M. Gates and sets it to a swooshing electronic beat. The result is both old-timey and futuristic, and the sweep of the message seeps in. In a more mischievous fashion, Simon imagines his eternal reward on “The Afterlife,” a song that finds him in heaven’s waiting room, filling out forms and checking out the “girl over there with the sunshiny hair like a homecoming queen.”
There’s a sweetness and lightness to Simon’s voice that remains undiminished by the years. His delivery feels effortless, and he uses lyrics the way other musicians use instruments, creating songs that are a feast for those who like words. And the sound of words. And the music of the sound of words.
Reunited with producer Phil Ramone (who worked on “Still Crazy After All These Years” and Simon and Art Garfunkel’s 1981 reunion concert in Central Park), Simon appears to be in his natural element, melding a world of rhythms and styles and surprises. The result is music with a broad appeal that remains smart and seductive, playful and poignant, rollicking and redemptive.
In the liner notes he penned for the album, Elvis Costello writes, “This is a man in full possession of all his gifts looking at the comedy and beauty of life with clarity and the tenderness bought by time.”
Indeed time has been Simon’s friend. He and boyhood pal Garfunkel had their first charting song in 1957, when they were 16. Since then, Simon has written songs that, decade after decade, resonated with the country as they both borrowed from and contributed to the American sound. From “Sound of Silence” to “Mrs. Robinson” to “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to “Graceland,” his songs helped give America a sense of itself. It is not for nothing that in 2007, he was the first recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
With “So Beautiful or So What,” Simon has crafted a magnificent addition to his canon with a work that feels tantalizingly less like a career coda than a signal of a brilliant new epoch.
“Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “Dazzling Blue,” “Love and Hard Times”