Recording of July 2011: So Beautiful or So What
Hear Music HRM-32814 (CD; the LP comes with a voucher for hi-rez downloads). 2011. Paul Simon, Phil Ramone, prods.; Andy Smith, eng. AAD? TT: 38:15
"Love & Blessings"? "Questions for the Angels"? It seems that Paul Simon, who will turn 70 in October, has begun to ask life's Big Questions in preparation for his own exit. Yet in this case, seeming is not reality, and at 69, Simon has returned to his polyglot musical influences (that he may or may not have heisted...but that's an argument for another day) to fashion a startlingly powerful collection of songs that successfully mix the jaunty near-danceability of his world-music adventures with serious lyrics about impending death, the vagaries of love, and, especially, the many unknowables contained in the word God.
Musically, So Beautiful or So What leans on Simon's wide knowledge of and familiarity with the musics of Africa, Brazil, and old-fashioned gospel. The rhythms of world music in tunes like "Dazzling Blue," dominated by the Indian percussion of V.B. Madhusadanan (tabla) and V. Suresh-Ghatam (clay pot), are now so much a part of his musical résumé that they sound more like archetypal Simon than does "The Sound of Silence." His incorporation of, if not immersion in, world music has proved to be a big latter-day influence on eclectic indie rock outfits like Vampire Weekend. The easy world-music-lite vibe, while breaking no new ground, still perfectly suits Simon and these songs, which thankfully eschew the slick but ultimately obscure rambles of his last album, Surprise (2006), which was anything but pleasant.
The most curious part of So Beautiful or So What is the obsession with God. In the album's anchor tune, "The Afterlife," Simon's wordplay is a near-perfect mix of the humorous and the consequential, as he turns standing before his makergettin' right with God, as it wereinto something akin to a trip to the DMV. The syncopated grooves and hipster jiveeven, near the end, exclamations of "Be Bop a Lula" and "Ooh Poo Papa Doo"swing wildly between pickup lines to a nearby corpse of the female persuasion to more serious conclusions: "Buddha and Moses and all the noses / From narrow to flat / had to stand in line / Just to glimpse the divine / What'cha think about that? / Well, it seems our fate / To suffer and wait / for the knowledge we seek / It's all his design / No one cuts in line / No one here likes a sneak."
Hints of/References to omnipotence hover behind the strongest songs. God is named in in the opening track, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," for which Simon and coproducer Phil Ramone, a longtime collaborator, brilliantly blend a ghostly recording of a bizarre 1941 sermon in which the Reverend J.M. Gates talks about Christmas in deathly terms"I may be layin' in some lonesome grave, getting ready for Christmas"with a pulsing mix, and a narrative about a nephew returning to Iraq for a third tour of duty. Cameroonian electric guitarist Vincent Nguini lends an African flavor to the rhythmic vitality of this and several other tunes. While the sound of the album is passable and very listenable, the overall dynamic range has been reduced unnecessarily, the record being a little more compressed than it ought to be.
In the gospel rave-up "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light"backed with handclaps, a pulsing flute sample from Grizzly Bear's Chris Bear, and a sample of a harmonica solo by Sonny Terry (from 1956)God even makes an amiable in-person appearance, offering up such bluster as "Big Bang / That's a joke that I made up," and a bit of timely social and artistic commentary: "Check out that radio, pop music station / that don't sound like my music to me / Talk show host, what's that boy's name / Politics is ugly." And in a flabby and too-earnest ballad, "Love and Hard Times," Simon slips into love-song excess while going to the God well once too often, in a song whose lyrical indulgences ("Just love, love, love, love, love") make it tired and clichéd.
Fortunately, there are moments when deities are nowhere to be found, as in "Rewrite." Here, Simon, virtuoso kora player Yacouba Sissoko, and multi-instrumentalist Steve Shehan (on tuned bass djembe, bass talking drum, glass harp, and other exotica) work up an acoustic groove reminiscent of the best moments on Graceland.
For those for whom art can never truly be separated from artifice, Paul Simon's all-too-real portrayal of the slimy record exec Tony Lacey in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1977, has become his default image: shifty, shady, even a little mean. His never-ending emotional wrestling match with Art Garfunkel, in which Simon somehow always seems to come off as the bully, hasn't helped much. It all makes for a fundamental disconnect between art and artist that is nearly reconciled by the still-peerless songwriting displayed here. Somehow, that soft, friendly, lilting tenor, and these sweet songs about love and death, paint a portrait that better fits a talent that, along with Bob Dylan's, has come to define the art of the singer-songwriter.Robert Baird