The name Paul Simon isn’t, for whatever reason, prominent these days. It’s strange, considering Paul Simon has been at the forefront of America’s music scene in past generations.
After all, he is the Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, the duo that redefined folk music in the ’60s. And he’s the Simon who trailblazed a solo career featuring gems like 1986’s Graceland. But Simon has not been a genuine musical force in the past decade.
As his new album So Beautiful or So What shows, however, Simon still has the talent to make a deceptively creative album, full of wit and humor.
It’s not necessarily an easy album to access. In today’s universe of melody sampling, it seems just plain weird to hear the sort of thing Simon offers: So Beautiful or So What is an eccentric blend of folk-rock twinged with a country twang and delicate, ethereal sounds of acoustic strings. This is all glued together with world influences, such as tabla percussion, and occasionally punctuated with space-age sound effects.
It’s a bit strange sounding at times, as if an indie folk band ate marijuana brownies and decided to hang out in Mumbai at a bluegrass concert. And because of this, it’s easy to dismiss the album as disheveled madness.
Take the album opener, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” a track with swooping keyboard notes, hand claps, a sermon sample and a guitar track panning from left to right to left like a jumping flea. It’s enough to make the average music fan go running for more Bruno Mars.
But here’s the secret: Simon has always been good at this sort of musical alchemy. He’s done it in past albums, and like some sort of magic, the songs of So Beautiful or So What grow on you with time.
The album isn’t perfect, but given the chance, it charms beyond words.
Compositions aside, it sure helps that Simon is, and has always been, a lyrical genius. The album’s themes of love, life and God show through throughout as Simon repeatedly poses questions in different forms.
It’s the kind of existential soliloquizing that can, without skill and subtlety, make you want to tear your hair out.
Thankfully, Simon has skill and subtlety. His writing avoids the deathtraps of pretentious babble, ringing truthful and heartfelt instead, with wit and humor to match.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line, Simon offers in “The Afterlife,” as he wonders about the process of getting to heaven.
But Simon is not all winks and chuckles.
In fact, So Beautiful or So What’s best lies in its moments of quiet, reflective thought.
Simon somehow can make a song feel like a 300-page novel at times, like with the majestic and relentlessly bittersweet ballad “Love and Hard Times.”
The tears burned, the windows rattled, the locks turned, Simon sings, continuing with the poignant lines It’s easy to be generous when you’re owed / it’s hard to be grateful when you’re out of control.
The music is complex and epic enough to match: Melodies wander, keys shift, new instruments and sounds fall in at will and climaxes and resolutions shapeshift without warning.
For these reasons, So Beautiful or So What can be at once a supremely satisfying but also an unnervingly frustrating album to listen to.
Depending on your mood, it might all make sense. Minutes later, it might seem outright stupid.
But at the very least, there is no doubt Simon’s work is thoughtful and provocative, both musically and lyrically. In it’s sheer uniqueness, So Beautiful or So What stands out as a must-listen for anyone willing to honestly call themselves passionate about music.
Simon has somehow created a work of fearless originality in a time when originality is so scarce.
Now it’s just a matter of finding people to sit and hear it for themselves.