I don’t like to write music reviews that often. This is the result of a combination of things (my delightfully outdated and unhip music interests among them), but it’s mainly because I’m no musician. There are real writers who can explore a guitar neck past the first five frets, and I try not to write about things I’m unsure of. Though I listen to a whole slew of music – ranging from delta blues to jazz to Irish folk music to mid-nineties alt college stuff – I lack the necessary background in the field that professionals have.
That disclaimer aside, I’d like to talk for a bit about Paul Simon’s new album and what it means to me. (Because, after all, that’s just what the Internet needs: another amateur’s opinion of a god.)
However, to fully grasp my relationship with So Beautiful Or So What (2011), you should understand my relationship with Simon’s prior work. The first Paul Simon album I ever listened to, like any other child of the late 1980s, was Graceland (1986). (While I’m at this point in my tale, I think it necessary to affirm the commonly-held notion that this is easily one of the greatest albums of all time. If you disagree with this scientifically proven fact, well, I have some bad news for you: you’re deaf.)
After a few solid months of high school spent with the same disc in the stereo, my parents bought(!) two more Simon discs: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975). Like everything Simon’s ever touched, these were pure gold.
It was a strange time in terms of technology then. Peer-to-peer file protocols entered and exited the market with such frequency that I’m not sure you could accurately describe mine as the “Napster Generation”; we could easily be considered children of other since-deceased protocols like Morpheus, WinMX, or even Limewire (it wasn’t always the pedophile paradise it came to be recently, mind you). Regardless, the fact remained that I loved the music of Paul Simon and would stop at nothing (except perhaps the threat of actually having to purchase an album) to download his work. I would stay up late at night, waiting for the one guy with all the tracks from One-Trick Pony (1980) to appear online so I could download poorly encoded mp3s from him at 56 kilobytes per second. This, I thought, was some cutting-edge stuff. Damn right we sent a man to the moon.
Like a sponge with an affinity for Jews from New York City that can play the guitar, I absorbed every cut I could get my hands on. One of my favorite Paul Simon lyrics comes from Hearts and Bones (1983). It’s called “Maybe I Think Too Much” (a) and has a part that goes like so:
“I started to think too much
When I was twelve going on thirteen /
Me and the girls from St. Augustine /
Up in the mezzanine
Thinking about God, yeah”
It’s probably because I’m a sucker for crescendos, but that last part got to me. At the time, I was the standard high school student: full of angst, forlorn over some girl, and always over thinking. At the time, I fooled myself into believing that last attribute was synonymous with being pensive. I am wiser now. Regardless, the phrase “thinking about God” still jumped out at me. I’m not sure what it was, but I realize today that, to me, “thinking about God” is the rawest form of this pensive behavior.
Since then, Simon’s released two studio albums. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how I felt about Surprise (2006). Though the music wasn’t entirely Simon’s – he collaborated with another one of my favorite artists, Brian Eno – the album’s tendency to provoke thought in the listener was definitely a trait shared by much of his earlier work (especially from the 1970s-80s). I often wonder, however, if my adoration for this album was just a product of my life circumstances at the time: in summer, 2006, I graduated from a rigorous high school program, I was carting around town in a shiny new car, there was a girl who I had somehow fooled into regularly putting her tongue in my mouth, and my entire college career was ahead of me. Anything was possible.
One of the more interesting points about Surprise, however, was that my favorite lyric made a cameo. In “Everything About It Is a Love Song”:
“But if I ever get back to the twentieth century
Guess I’ll have to pay off some debts /
Open the book of my vanishing memory
With its catalog of regrets /
Stand up for the deeds I did, and those I didn’t do /
Sit down, shut up, think about God
And wait for the hour of my rescue.”
Though presented in different terms, there it was again. After the magical summer of 2006, I found myself literally sitting down, shutting up, and thinking about God (or at least about our place in the universe). Given Simon’s nebulous relationship with religion, I’m unsure whether he means to refer to a monotheistic God or something more cosmic, but the lyric continued to be thought provoking, nonetheless.
If you were to have told me in 2006 that Simon’s next studio album wouldn’t be out for another half decade, I would have told you that I didn’t care; life was perfect and there would have been no reason to think about the future like that. Since 2011 has rolled around, though, I can tell you unabashedly that I was certainly ready for this record to drop.
(Secret shame, aside from pirating Simon’s music as a acne-faced fanboy: For much of the five year interim between albums, I would regularly bemoan the fact that Paul Simon tours about as much as the post Candlestick Park Beatles. I thought it lazy of him. Now I realize his absence has been worth it. I mean, have you listened to – and I mean legitimately listened to – this record? The questions it inspires would take far more than five years to even begin to answer. As far as getting bang for his buck in these terms, Paul’s doing fine.)
Which brings us to present day. Setting aside the fact that the distribution channels have changed from my wanton youth (in a move that would have given my former self visions of flying cars in a Jetsons-like spacescape, Simon released the album a week early on npr.org), So Beautiful or So What is truly a lyrical masterpiece. I hesitate to say that the music on the album is better than (or even on par with) his past work, but the record’s real strength is in the lyrics.
Rather than devoting one line of one track to “thinking about God,” Simon does it for an entire album (just under 40 minutes). What happens to you after you die? Is there a God? What must God think of us? What if we could rewrite our own story?
Ultimately, does it matter?
So Beautiful or So What.
And here we are, left on earth with each other (and another really, really good Paul Simon album). Sounds all right to me.
What does sadden me as he gets old, though, is the musical arrangement. Sure, working with Brian Eno he expanded his horizons, but he doesn’t have to keep expanding. I’d take another Hearts and Bones any day.
That’s all I’ll say about it, since I couldn’t say anything about it that hasn’t been said in pieces people have been paid to write. Plus, I think people are smart enough to determine the merits of an album for themselves.
I’ll end with a hypothetical: there is a man who has one superpower. He can instantly travel back in time, inform individuals about their future, and gauge their reaction with no effect on the future. What if he traveled back to 1970, after the release of Simon and Garfunkel’s last studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and had Paul spin So Beautiful or So What on his hi-fi stereo? What would a young Paul Simon think?
I honestly don’t know. All I know is: that superhero had better avoid Art Garfunkel.comment (1)
I like public broadcasting. I remember when I was young, it seems like every major event occurred with the faint dinging of Mister Rogers’ trolley in the background. I remember when B.J. totally ruined Barney’s show by joining the cast. And I remember the pre- and post- Shari Lewis years.
As I grew up, I moved on to National Public Radio. First, it was Morning Edition in the mornings to keep me awake when I had to rise at 5:00 a.m. for high school, then it was whatever was playing on the station in Gainesville (Science Friday was and is a personal favorite). Now, I listen whenever I think about it since they did away with classical music and switched to jazz in the evenings on WUSF.
Either way, though, I don’t listen as much as I should. It’s not because of a lack of relevant and interesting programming; it’s because they ask for money all the damn time and I’m sick of it.
When one of the weekly pledge drives crops up on my radio, it’s an instant turn off. Whenever one of these events in monotony arrives, it’s all I can do not to imagine Ira Glass in his big, dumb hipster glasses with a tin cup begging for change outside of a 7-11.
I love public radio, but I think there should be a way to give those who actually donate a way to listen to all of their fine programming without degrading yourself and selling tote bags and DVDs for hundreds of dollars. It’s unbecoming.comment (0)
Well, I guess since Mom’s already forwarded this to everyone she knows, I guess it’s okay to exhibit it here.
A few pieces of necessary background information:
Our friend, Rhiannon, just moved to North Carolina to become a doctor.
It was recently her birthday.
She and my brother have an ongoing joke about the nonexistant “Pericardial Artery.”
My brother and I jokingly call each other gay (in a completely non-offensive way with no ill intent toward folks of that persuasion).
She cooked us Cuban food when she lived in Alachua County.
This is the most complex song I could think of. I threw an Em and D7 in there just to make it not comprised of G, C, and D.
Ian holds the microphone too close to his mouth.
This past weekend, Ian and I made the trek up to the fine City of Chicago to enjoy a Cubs game and a Jimmy Buffett concert. A few observations:
Every bloody thing in Chicago is named after Mayor Daley or his dad. The Richard M. Daley Building, the Richard J. Daley Center, the Richard M. Daley Public Restroom (A Richard J. Daley Project). You get the idea.
Chicago has public transportation down, man. We took the train from our hotel to Wrigley and back in a snap, all for the low price of two dollars. (I will have to get used to public transportation this coming fall, because I think I’m taking the bus to campus if I can’t find someone to sell me a red parking decal. This is a not-so-subtle hint.)
My cousin Scott is a dirty, funny, old man. He burned a bunch of bootleg and compilation CDs and brought them to Buffett tailgating, where he offered them to old drunk ladies in exchange for a good view of their funbags. I have photos. They are disturbing.
Well, in my never-ending search for ways to make women swoon (for those of you keeping score at home, none of my previous attempts have yielded success), I’ve decided to take a more conventional route.
If you’ll recall, I tried learning the mandolin. I learned a few chords and things, but this attempt for love was born in futility. I guess chicks don’t dig an instrument that I play only because it’s small and I have tiny hands. And I guess, at least subconsciously, they know what tiny hands mean and they flock to the nearest regular-sized guy.
Then, I tried lifting weights. It worked out for a while, but then I went home for Christmas and didn’t take home my miracles of muscle making. And man, that stuff is heavy. It didn’t really act as a chick magnet either, though. I assume this is the case because notwithstanding my somewhat increased arm size, I remained short. Chicks dig tall guys.
Well, I am trying again. This time, however, I’m doing it the right way: I’m learning to play the guitar. I’m getting kind of good at it too, even with my gnomelike hands. This has got to be the clincher that makes the women of the world show up at my doorstep in herds wanting to be my bride, right?
So, tell your friends that their wildest dreams can soon come true: I can serenade girls until they fall madly in love with me.
At least after I learn more chords than A, C, D, E, F, and G.comments (6)
It’s been two years since I discovered the splendor that is Bishop Allen. And thank the good Lord, they released a second album. Having acquired it, it is quite different from their first; it’s more pensive, less poppy, and perhaps even better. Anyhow, I’ve been listening to The Broken String for about three weeks straight and trust me when I say that every time I listen to it, I notice something new and clever. I recommend that you give it a listen.comments (2)