Clearly, Paul Simon felt he had created something very special with So Beautiful or So What, his twelfth solo album, his first in five years. While the audio CD is only 10-tracks long it is now accompanied by a five-song live DVD, issued by Simon as a collector’s edition set. The album’s reviews have been universally high. Many equate the release with his wildly popular 1986 LP, Graceland, and it’s hard to argue with either Simon or his audience.
Simon has always been a master of blending evocative, surprising imagery and ironic lyrics with unique, distinctive instrumentation and sophisticated performances. In this case he’s also shaped one of his most thematically unified albums, describing ideas of love in both cosmic and personal contexts. Religious images are seen in the opening bars of “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” in which an upbeat, bluesy setting is melded with spoken-word shouts and phrases taken from a 1941 sermon by Reverend J.M. Gates. Then, Simon goes to Heaven in “The Afterlife” where we all have to fill out forms and stand in line before gaining entry. Piano and strings provide a backdrop of innocence for “Love and Hard Times” wherein God comes down to earth and tells his son creation is eternal; at the same time young lovers focus on each other. Similarly, in “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” a rockabilly number tells us a “Big Bang” started it all, and all is never-ending love. The beautiful instrumental “Amulet” leads into “Questions for the Angels” which are asked by “fools and pilgrims all over the world.” For example, would a zebra in Africa shed a tear if all humanity and their buildings disappear?
Not all selections are so overtly spiritual. “Dazzling Blue,” built on Simon’s typically excellent acoustic guitar work, is about young love, the sort of song you’d expect from a much younger writer. “Rewrite” joins the canon of Simon’s story songs about interesting characters, in this case a trash man who’s always rewriting his non-specific creations. The album is summed up with the title track, “So Beautiful or So What,” where the songwriter says life is what we make it, and we shouldn’t mistake “value for the price.”
As always, Simon’s words demand repeated listening while defying literal interpretations. And that’s what the best poetry sets out to do. Musically, Simon continues to draw from an international well of resources while putting his own individual stamp on the styles, time signatures, and mix of instrumental textures, percussion in particular. True, there’s a measure of sameness to Simon’s vocal lines which have changed little since the Simon and Garfunkel days. But the same can be said of any great stylist from Sinatra to Dylan. This collection is fresh, even challenging, and is as close as one can get to a perfect album.
Three of its songs, “So Beautiful or So What,” ”Dazzling Blue,” and “The Afterlife,” are among the live performances on the extra DVD’s concert footage recorded in 2011 at New York’s Webster Hall. These versions are very different interpretations of the studio takes, more raw and earthy. “Dazzling Blue,” for example, has a noticeably more Indian flavor in its opening section. Then, laid-back performances of two Simon oldies, “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Slip Slidin’ Away,” demonstrate that one of the most significant songbooks in American music history has a continuity that has just added a new chapter, with new classics joining melodies that have made Simon such an ongoing musical presence.
Perhaps Simon felt a 10-song release might have seemed skimpy for some listeners and added the live set to make the collection more of a value. Then again, he sings about how we shouldn’t confuse value with price. He needn’t have worried, although the mini-concert is a much-appreciated bonus. This album is one of the best releases of 2011, one of the best of Simon’s career, and will likely gain new appreciation as his new material becomes more familiar. It belongs in your collection, whether you’re an old fan or a new one. With luck the well Simon is drawing from now won’t require another five years to replenish.