CK Retro Review: So Beautiful Or So What by Paul SimonPosted: October 7, 2013
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.
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