Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I love Paul Simon. Over the years, without me really noticing, he’s probably been my favourite singer/songwriter of all time.

A new Paul Simon album is an event for me. I ended up loving the last one a lot more than I thought I would, but I did have my doubts. The man is 70 years old this October. So 50 years into his career, surely he’s run out of steam by now?

Yes, that's a DNA double-helix. Nice use of rich purple, something you don't see too often today.

Actually no, it turns out. Instead his themes and ideas continue to evolve and change, moving in an increasingly religious direction, despite his own agnosticism. This is not a worship album, but an album of questioning, of seeking truth, exploring social and spiritual boundaries and doing it all with a light but deft sense of humour. In his later career everything is sacred, but nothing is beyond a little deconstruction.

Here, it’s The Afterlife that stands as the most obvious example of this, talking about arriving in Heaven but being forced to submit to its mundane bureaucracy, “You’ve got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.” It re-imagines the popular conception of the Christian afterlife, without being blasphemous.

Love and Hard Times meanwhile sees a busy God and his son Jesus visiting Earth for a quick check up on the human race, opening with a solo piano that is quickly swapped out for acoustic guitar and little orchestral string elements. About half-way through it turns into a straight up love-song, but it almost seems like a love of Creation. Good old songwriting ambiguity.

These are songs clearly based on a more traditional songwriting approach than on his previous record Surprise. The sound too has changed, lacking Brian Eno’s lush electronics. As a result, the record is more organic and maybe a tad lower-key. None of these songs really catch on fire at any point, they just kind of trickle forward with their own persistence, full of their own stubborn rational wisdom.

Continuing the reflective vibe, Rewrite is a story about looking back on life, and wishing to maybe go back and make it a little more cinematic. There’s a lovely twisty Spanish style guitar part here. Paul Simon loves these quirky little instrumental hooks. Similarly Love is Eternal Sacred Light is a toe-tapping little number, an infectious groove pounding away like a heartbeat throughout.

The thing about this record for me is that, while it’s not as good as Surprise, it’s yet another strong Paul Simon record. It doesn’t really jump out at you, or even really try. It’s a quiet rather-restrained statement that doesn’t reach too high. The thing Paul Simon does better than anyone out there is to write songs about life from the perspective of having lived one, as if he is handing down wisdom. It’s fatherly, or grandfatherly even, rather than the common rock and roll trope of writing about youth. This album, while not earth-shattering, is genuine and true and I will treasure it.

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