Paul Simon: “So Beautiful or So What”

God the Father and God the Son pay a visit to this planet midway through the new Paul Simon album, So Beautiful or So What. It doesn’t take them much time at all to realize that the people down here are savages, and that if word of the sublime gets out, they’ll be run out of town on a rail. And so they depart, leaving behind a world of cruel misery and an echo of the Divine. Love and hard times. But what’s really remarkable is what happens next: String swell and the mood shifts from pensive singer/songwriter fare to a lover’s ballad that Sinatra could have crooned. “I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you,” comes the lyric, straight and true, and indeed: For this song, anyway, it sounds like Love is winning over the hard times.

Simon’s album is filled with characters hanging on to love, clinging to its promises because, well, what else have they got? A Vietnam vet spends his days working at a car wash, forgotten by the country he so bravely served, but hopes against hope that he can reach out to someone and begin a “rewrite” of his life. Love and hard times, indeed. But So Beautiful is not a thing of desperation; it’s an album that ravishes with the purity of its romance. These are love songs bold and true enough that they could be spiritual or even political, but Simon’s path for them is even purer than that– these are songs about lovers and neighbors, about the boldness of choosing love (so beautiful) over despair (so what). The hard times are not taken lightly, but love is an eternal sacred light.

As for the record itself: It’s so beautiful. So wonderfully, disarmingly beautiful. Of all his singer/songwriter peers– including Bob Dylan– Simon is the one who seems most concerned with making every new album utterly distinct from the ones that came before, but So Beautiful isn’t a new path so much as a culmination of all the ones that came before. You’ll hear echoes of his earliest, folk-driven work– indeed, it’s the most melodic and song-oriented album he’s made in twenty years– but also the African fusion of his best 1980s albums (by now, as foundational to his sound as the folk stuff) and even the Technicolor swirl of Surprise.

But here’s what’s difference: Simon has never woven his influences together with this much energy or imagination. The sense of romance afforded by the lyrics is ably matched by sounds that seem to dance with the possibilities of music with childlike wonder. And so we have a song like “Dazzling Blue,” where close country harmonies meet Indian percussion. “Love and Blessings” revisits Simon’s longstanding loves of doo-wop and early rock and roll. “The Afterlife” is a jittery African blues. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” the much-hyped first single which marks Simon’s first foray into sampling, plays almost like the inverse of Surprise; on that album, Simon’s songs were stretched to fit within the confines of Brian Eno’s soundscapes, but here the samples are neatly folded into Simon’s writing.

And on that subject, Simon’s songs here are marked by pure boldness; they’re full of humor and romance, and “Love in Hard Times” is just one example of how remarkable this material is. Frankly, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” itself is pretty bold in how the whole piece hangs on the perfectly-deployed sample, but so too is “Love is an Eternal Sacred Light,” a cosmic ramble that traces the origins of mankind to a terrifying pinnacle– “a bomb in the marketplace,” Simon suggests, is where all this messy humanity will end– but then flips the script with another cameo from the Almighty himself. Love is an eternal sacred light; Simon seems really to believe that.

Indeed, the romanticism of this work is unvarnished despite the fact that these songs carry the full weight of just how dark this world can be; both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars are mentioned, the title cut includes a wrenching scene of the Martin Luther King assassination, and “The Afterlife” paints a picture of the next world that’s something of an ironic farce. These is no cynicism, however– just a sense of what’s real. And in that context a song like “Questions for the Angels” becomes even more powerful; Simon makes it clear that only pilgrims and fools believe in these spirits of light, then places himself among their number with a humble sincerity that’s disarming.

As a program of music, So Beautiful is simply magnificent, a thing of rare enchantment, and in a career full of highlights it stands out as both an utterly singular achievement and perhaps the album that best captures the spark of Paul Simon’s muse. Frankly, you’d have to go back to Love & Theft for an example of an artist so skillfully conjuring the entire balance of his creative powers. And that’s ultimately what gives So Beautiful its heft: It constructs a choice– so beautiful, or so what?– and, by conjuring something so ravishing from moments of such sadness, throws its considerable weight behind the option that is the most romantic, and– we can only hope– the most true.

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