Late in 2011, Paul Simon celebrated his 70th birthday. Earlier that year, he celebrated the release of an album for which you could make a legitimate case as the best of his amazing career and not get laughed out of the room. So Beautiful Or So What is a stunningly assured collection of songs filled with Simon’s trademark humor and heart and melodies that alternately woo and wound. The arrangements are dialed back and simplified, leaving Paul front and center for what feels like the first time since the start of his solo career, and he more than rises to the occasion. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Amulet”- He has employed so many great guitarists over the years that it’s easy to forget how deft a guitarist that Simon is in his own right. This sweet little solo instrumental is a nice reminder.
9. “Love And Blessings”- The one novel production technique, relative to the rest of Simon’s career, on So Beautiful Or So What is the use of samples from early 20th-century recordings on three songs. Here a moody acoustic piece gets a jolt of energy from a “bop-bop-a-whoa” chant that comes from the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in 1938. Simon and co-producer Phil Ramone do a really nice job of seamlessly integrating it into the finished recording.
8. “Dazzling Blue”- This one has a Graceland feel in the way that it meshes different elements that seem like they shouldn’t work together, but, by the end of the song, feel like they’re naturally complimentary. In this case, you’ve got Indian artists creating fascinating vocal percussion while bluegrass legends Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver provide lush harmonies behind Simon. The singer advises playing a “lonesome tune” when things get rough, but there’s no way he could be lonesome with musical friends like these.
7. “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”- Simon makes a pretty good racket without losing his melodic flair on this one. God makes several appearances on the album; here he comes off as a prankster who doesn’t let his love for his children get in the way of a good road trip.
6. “Getting Ready For Christmas”- Ray Davies would be proud of the jaded view that Simon takes toward Christmas on this track. The main riff is a catchy one, even if it gets a bit repetitive after a while. One of Simon’s trademark stylistic shifts might have helped. It’s still a lively attention-grabber to open the album.
5. “Questions For The Angels”- Simon has been profiling forlorn outsiders as far back as “The Boxer,” so this story about a man who is literally and spiritually homeless searching for answers is right in his wheelhouse. The chamber-music instrumentation is deployed with just the right touch around Simon’s wandering melody. None of his questions are answered, not by God or Jay-Z, but this lonely pilgrim captures our hearts just the same.
4. “So Beautiful Or So What”- Who says that Dylan has cornered the market on state-of-the-world blues songs? Simon is the one who goes electric here and delivers a frenzied dissertation on history, squandered time and love, and chicken gumbo. The lyrics seesaw between playfulness and profundity without an ounce of strain, which makes it the perfect album-closing track, summing up all that has come before it.
3. “The Afterlife”- Heaven as a bureaucratic snafu? Albert Brooks would love it. Simon’s version of an eternal resting place, full of forms and lines and no sign of the Man Upstairs, is one of his cleverest creations in song. When he finally does get to speak to God to defend his life, all he can come up with are doo-wop lyrics. The agile lyrics prance all over the hip-swaying music conjured by the trio of Simon, Vincent Nguini, and Jim Oblon. Let’s hope the real afterlife has music that’s half as much fun as this.
2. “Love And Hard Times”- At times it sounds like Randy Newman; at others, it sounds like Frank Sinatra. Somehow those two disparate influences coalesce into something that is quintessentially Simon. Give credit to Gil Goldstein for arranging the strings with subtlety without sacrificing the impact. God and Jesus get out while the getting’s good in the first part of the song, unable to deal with the waywardness of their imperfect creations. The second part is a desperate love song, one man clinging to the buffer that his better half provides against those “hard times.” Every moment is captivating, while Simon’s performance is one of the most moving in his career.
1.”Rewrite”- It comes on like an unassuming character sketch of a slightly addled car wash attendant. The hypnotic music, which builds off the contrast between the low rumble of the guitar and the high trill of the glass harp, sounds soothing enough, with Simon’s whistling adding to the whole breezy feel. All of this only makes the surprises in the narrative more affecting, especially when we find out just how much this guy has lost. That’s when you realize that his unfinished script is more than just the unrealistic dream of a menial worker. He’s actually attempting to rewrite a life than has spiraled wildly out of his control.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below. Online reviews of that material are much appreciated.)
Perhaps realizing that he was getting diminishing returns from the forays into World music that began so spectacularly with Graceland, Paul Simon found a new path on 2006’s Surprise. That title couldn’t have been more appropriate, since listeners expecting the percussion-led workouts of his previous few albums were instead treated to guitars polished with gleaming sonics, beats that were at times robotically precise, and electronic effects that brought artificiality into Simon’s music like never before. And guess what? The album, sculpted with help from studio wizard Brian Eno, was consistently fine and occasionally splendid. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”- You can give credit to Eno and the sonics for the album’s success, but the fact is that Simon’s songwriting was much sharper as well. This may be the only example of a song where the focus falters, but the subtle funkiness and the breeziness of Paul’s performance still makes it a keeper.
10. “Beautiful”- An addled father watches his family get bigger practically by the moment in Simon’s loose narrative. Bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Gadd have a loose chemistry as a rhythm section that sparks their songs together, including this one, while the falsetto chorus is a moment that evokes the song’s title.
9. “That’s Me”- As on You’re The One, Simon spends a good portion of Surprise pondering deep stuff like the nature of identity and the passage of time. The difference is that he laces songs like “That’s Me” with ample helpings of lived-in details and self-deprecating humor. When he does wax philosophic and poetic, as in the gorgeous middle section here, the beauty of it really pops from the earthier surroundings.
8. “Everything About It Is A Love Song”- There is a little bit of everything going on in this song, maybe too much at times, but it’s a thrilling collaboration of sounds. The stark opening gives way to a skittering beat that seems to constantly pick up pace. Guitar legend Bill Frisell adds some virtuosity to Eno’s inspired knob-twiddling. I’m not sure you can say about too may Simon songs that you’re breathless at the end of it, but this one qualifies.
7. “Wartime Prayer”- I personally think that this is one song where the ambition of it all gets a bit in the way. The quieter parts are heart-rending stuff, and Simon’s lyrics effortlessly shift from sympathetic pleas to pointed jibes (“People hungry for the voice of God/Hear lunatics and liars.”) Alas, the rock gospel section is a bit forced and overblown, keeping this song from reaching its full potential. Still, what works really sizzles.
6. “Father And Daughter”- Let’s face it: Rock songs written by fathers for children can be sticky sweet to the point of annoyance. Simon avoids that pitfall with music that’s accessible yet still interesting and lyrics that are hopeful without being naïve. Familiar childhood signposts like bed monsters and fishing trips mix with sober advice: “Try to help the human race/Struggling to survive its harshest night.” Paul’s jazzy main guitar riff is a great anchor as well.
5. “Outrageous”- One of Eno’s more famous projects was Achtung Baby by U2, which featured “The Fly.” Even though Eno didn’t have a hand in producing that particular song, the same vibe percolates through “Outrageous,” especially in the phrasing of Simon’s quasi-rapping in the verses. And, like those great U2 songs, this one really soars when it opens up from the chunky open sections into the more melodic portions. Paul’s concerns about social ills and personal frailties can be summed up in one frazzled line: “It’s outrageous I can’t stop thinking ‘bout the thing I’m thinking of.”
4. “How Can You Live In The Northeast?”- Upon hearing those power chords at the start of this album, you’d forgive some Simon fans if they thought the clerk had inserted the wrong disc into their slipcase. The evidence that it is prime Paul comes in the song’s chameleonic nature. It quickly shifts from the narrator’s wondrous visions of fireworks into a series of close-minded questions that Simon utilizes to drive home his point about how inane it is that religious and geographical differences can be blown up into impenetrable barriers. This has as much bite as anything Simon had released in decades.
3. “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean”- Again, the title suggests some kind of treatise on life that takes us back into the mists of time. In a way, it does, but you also get a very relatable modern story about a guy who shrugs off what he sees is a dead-end life only to find his original home exerts more of a pull on him that he ever could have expected. The final verse is a show-stopper, one that can make you misty-eyed. The jumpy music in the narrative parts steps back to let Simon’s melody flow through in the most important places.
2. “I Don’t Believe”- Simon is skilled enough to ask questions about trenchant topics like faith without coming off as hectoring or condescending. He shows that quality in spades here, a song with sadly pretty verses and rugged connecting sections that let drummers Steve Gadd and Robin DiMaggio release the thunder. Once again, Simon not only makes it look easy when he shifts gears in midstream, he makes it positively essential to the song’s success.
1.”Another Galaxy”- Simon has to be praised for taking a chance on this album and such a drastic change in sound. The synthesis for which he was striving is achieved to perfection here. Eno conjures a nifty electronic hook, Palladino and Gadd keep things percolating beneath the action, and Simon delivers his most direct hit of a melody on the album. He also tells a poignant miniature of a story and delivers the bigger picture, a resonant one for this album in that it’s about the righteousness of restlessness, in the chorus. There’s not a wasted moment.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below. And online reviews of this material are much appreciated.)