Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What (2011)

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Paul Simon’s new record, his first since 2006’s dense Brian Eno-collaboration Surprise, is a career-spanning, sometimes duskily ruminative, quirk-splashed triumph — simultaneously bold in its constructions and timeless in its themes. There’s a freedom, perhaps, that comes from going it alone: After 30 years with Warner Bros., Simon paid for the lengthy sessions that eventually produced So Beautiful or So What, then signed with the Concord Music Group. The album is due out on Tuesday; a sold-out tour of theaters and small clubs will then follow, beginning on April 15 in Seattle.

Simon has, with this long-awaited effort, found a way to combine the subtlety and directness of his early work with the complexity — both musical and emotional — of subsequent exotic sideroads like Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. You hear every piece of that long history, sometimes inside of one song: A percussive South Indian rhythm signature opens “Dazzling Blues,” but then Simon encircles the tune with finger-picking, bluegrass-infused guitar line, a stirring reminder of his perhaps forgotten abilities on the instrument.

Yet the album is more than an interesting interpolation of the leaping clickety clack of “Cecilia,” the frank self examinations of “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and his later fascination with supple Afropop. Simon, 69, ended up taking more than two years to complete So Beautiful or So What, and his patient craftsmanship imbues the project with a striking inventiveness. There’s also a growing sense of mystery and of forebearance, away from the thrilling din of music made with a core band that included longtime guitarist Vincent Nguini and percussionist Steve Shehan (Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel). Simon, in his quietest moments, seems to be engaged in a desperate fight against the gloaming. And not always winning.

[ONE TRACK MIND: “The Afterlife,” an advance tune from So Beautiful or So What, is almost like a long-lost discovery from Graceland. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.]

He dabbles, I think brilliantly, in distinctly modern studio experimentation, laying a portion of a fiery 1941 sermon by the Rev. J.M. Gates into “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” with such skill that it sounds like a found-object field holler. “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” rumbles out with a caverous harmonica-driven beat, like a space-station bar band. It was only later, after some time with it, that I pinpointed the sample as the late Sonny Terry. That’s him, wailing away on the harp, a ghost forever playing the train whistle blues.

With “Rewrite,” Simon employs a West African kora harp and djembe drum — but also, occasionally echoing low in the mix, the gutteral bleets of a wildebeest and other night sounds recorded while on a family trip to Kenya. “Rewrite” is so sinewy, so itchy and sharply rhythmic, that it sparked a realization, perhaps for the first time, that there is no bass guitar on this record. So Beautiful or So What is that rarest of listening experiences, one that rewards time spent with these shimmering new insights.

And it’s not just the music. Simon, probing and wry, revisits many of the questions that have defined his work. But this album’s sprite rhythms, its flinty experimentation, those kinetic stringed instruments, they all work in arresting contrast to some of the darker notions crossing his mind these days. The title track has an attitude — life is what you make of it, he sings, so get going — that’s as tough minded as its beat. But things aren’t always that easy, and Simon knows it. There are times, in fact, where he sounds genuinely angry.

Still, Simon keeps going, and that becomes its own kind of affirmation. On “Rewrite,” about a Vietnam vet trying to weave his way into society again, as on “Love and Hard Times” and “Questions for the Angels” — and further back, almost all the way back into his past — people never stop grasping for meaning in an angry, confusing world. What they find, one song at a time, isn’t always salvation (“Afterlife” actually makes the whole process sound like a frustrating day at the DMV) so much as it is a rediscovered passion for living, step after step, one day at a time.

There are small, good things along the way. Paul Simon’s new record is one of them.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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