It has been about five years since Paul Simon has come calling with a new studio album. The good news is that So Beautiful Or So What is his best album since Graceland, although its style and sound is more in line with that album’s successor, Rhythm Of The Saints.
Simon’s voice is always reassuring. And here he appears relaxed, as if he is sitting in his living room performing for a few friends. His poetic ability remains intact as he explores such themes as mortality, eternal life and spirituality.
The album’s musical textures and rhythms are far removed from his Simon & Garfunkel days. He continues to incorporate African rhythms to support his lyrics and at times to run counterpoint to them. In fact, he has become extremely adept at layering various sounds until the instruments blend together into a united whole.
There are a number of very strong, creative tracks. The album opener, “Getting Ready For Christmas Day,” serves to set the tone for what will follow. Its lyrics are based on a 70-plus-year-old sermon by The Reverend J.M. Gates, a fire and brimstone, Heaven and Hell preacher. Simon modernizes his message, layering drums as foundation and enhancement.
The great Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote how he considered Hell would be an endless succession of red tape and administrative layers. ”The Afterlife” adapts those concepts to Simon’s views of Heaven, complete with filling out forms and endless waiting.
The best track may be “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light.” In it Simon admits there are no answers to life’s major questions, but ultimately that is okay. He even pokes some fun of his philosophical predicament.
Later this year Paul Simon will turn 70, an age when the themes he explores here take on added personal importance. As such, with So Beautiful Or So What he has produced a mature work that explores his life’s ongoing journey, doing so through music of depth and beauty.