In a telling lyric on his eleventh solo studio record, Paul Simon imagines God cruising down a highway in the Midwest of America, criticising American culture: “check out the radio, pop music station / That don’t sound like my music to me.” In one of many lyrics in which Simon uses a mythic figure to reflect his own personal conflicts with America, it neatly sums up the tone of So Beautiful Or So What. Repeatedly throughout, Simon is reaching back into his musical past as a way of reacting to the present. He even delves back to the ‘40’s, sampling a sermon given by Reverend J.M. Gates on ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’, the jaunty opening track that recalls Simon classics such as ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ and ‘Kodachrome’ and touches on everything from life in Blue Collar America to Iraq in just over four minutes. Re- uniting with Phil Ramone, who produced all of Simon’s solo records from 1972’s Paul Simon to 1980’s One Trick Pony, the feel of So Beautiful Or So What is similar to his early ‘70’s debut; it feels almost as if the record was recorded live, in a room.
Pushing 70 years of age, Simon clearly has mortality on his mind. Like many songwriters of his age, songs about birth, death and everything in between are inevitable at this point in his life. What makes Simon’s take on the subject so refreshing is how he writes about the big questions with a humorous voice that is indelibly his own. In ‘The Afterlife’, he imposes witty, savvy, demotic tones on life after death: “Had to stand in line / just to glimpse the divine / what ‘cha think about that?”. Again, Simon reaches to the language of a bygone era and the coda of “Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?” immediately recalls the iconic opening cry of “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” from Little Richards’ ‘Tutti Frutti’.
Unlike much of his output since Graceland, the lyrics, melodies and guitar parts are not overshadowed in the mix by the rhythm section. Simon returns to his songwriting approach of constructing the song before the rhythm; an approach which changed during sessions for 1986’s classic Graceland, whereby rhythm dominated and dictated the course of the song. Songs such as ‘Love and Hard Times’, ‘Questions for the Angels’, and instrumental ‘Amulet’- have no percussion at all and there is no bass guitar anywhere on the record.
Lyrically, Simon is, as ever, concerned with the present state of America but is constantly using reference points from the past and in doing so write some of his most vivid and convincing lyrics. His humorous and playful tone- particularly on ‘The Afterlife’ and ‘Rewrite’, a stunning song about a Vietnam vet writing a fictional happy ending for his autobiographical film script is akin to that other maestro of American song: Randy Newman. The piano-led ‘Love and Hard Times’ is laced with the same sardonic humour of Newman’s ‘God’s Song (That’s Why I love Mankind)’, where Simon’s “restless Lord” says “…anyway, these people are slobs here / if we stay, it’s bound to be a mob scene”. A frank social commentator, Simon’s observations throughout the record ensure longevity.
An old hand at making records, Simon knows that the greatness of an album rests on the finishing side. ‘Amulet’, an elegant instrumental, bridges the raucous bluegrass of ‘Love is An Eternal Sacred Light’ with ‘Questions for the Angels’, easily one of his most tender and beautiful compositions. He finishes on the album’s title track, the recurring hammer, on motif of which is reminiscent of the opening motif of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’. By the end of the albums, 10 tracks clocking at 38 minutes, it’s clear that Simon’s blend of bluegrass, shifting rhythms, poetic lyrics and confessional, solo acoustic centrepieces is almost a retrospective of his entire solo output. It’s also clear that he has crafted his most vital, most complete album in 25 years.