A completely partial review of Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What

April 16th, 2011 / #music, #reviews

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 This is the result of a combination of things (my delightfully outdated and unhip music interests among them), but it’s mainly because I’m no musician.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.


There is only one comment. Add to the marketplace of ideas!

  1. HelenOE spoke up on May 13, 2011.

    Okay, I’ll tackle that challenge.

    I think 1970-Paul would like 2011-Paul just fine. The improvised percussion that gave “Cecilia” its groove has several tracks that are more than worthy successors on the new album.

    The author of “At The Zoo” would enjoy hearing the antelope and the zebra waft through the lyrics of “So Beautiful.”

    The author of “Song For The Asking” would recognize (and probably be reassured by) the sentiment at the end of “Love and Hard Times”– “Thank God I found you in time” although he would surely be disconcerted to discover that the woman addressed in the lyrics is his THIRD wife (and undoubtedly his last wife– 19 years, three children, and they seem very happy).

    “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was inspired, at least in part, by the Swan Silvertones’ “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you’ll trust in my name” so the appearance of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet is a continuation of a musical interest that was already in place then, just as Los Incas on “El Condor Pasa” could be seen as a foretaste of all the other ethnic musics that would be integrated into his music later.

    And I think that 1970-Paul might appreciate the subtle lyrical use to which 2011-Paul put the doowop choruses beloved of 1957-Paul, who first charted with his friend Artie on “Hey Schoolgirl” and actually got to appear on American Bandstand.

    What I would really love to have heard is what 1970-Paul would have said if you’d told him that as of that point, he had ahead of him at least another 40 years’ worth of a musical career that would be of worldwide interest. When he wrote in “Old Friends” “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy” I’m sure he never imagined that at almost-70 he’d still be touring internationally– and coaching his 13-year-old’s Little League team. Doesn’t sound like such a quiet existence to me.

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