Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pragmatic Spiritualism: Paul Simon's So Beautiful So What

I’ve always admired the single-mindedness of Paul Simon. To me, he’s always been a songwriter who starts with memorable pieces that magically blend the new with the familiar. Simon's So Beautiful or So What (Universal, 2011), his first new album in six years, continues in that vein. His songs tap an open pallet of musical history that only a man of 70 years can possess. You can hear within this work his entire catalogue which is an expansive experiment in musical genres. On this album, his ear for rhythm, context and popular song is essentially a hybrid of street wise rock & roll, gospel and folk that features an African, or South American tilt.

There's also a quest for spiritual fulfillment first heard on the opening track "Getting Ready For Christmas". First released last November as a single on NPR, it features the Reverend J. M. Gates preaching about Christmas Day ("...when Christmas come/Nobody knows where you’ll be/You might ask me/I may be layin’ in some lonesome grave/Getting ready for Christmas Day”). But his slightly caustic comments aren’t filled with false piety for Simon recognizes this falsehood. “The music may be merry/But it’s only temporary,” he sings. The song is a much deeper exploration of the hereafter which I'd prefer to call a kind of pragmatic spiritualism. So Beautiful or So What explores questions of God, Mother Earth and the Great Beyond. For instance, on “AfterLife”, Simon humorously reports that a ticket to the afterlife isn’t as easy as it may seem. (“You got to fill out a form first /And then you wait in the line.”) That number is followed by a love song, “Dazzling Blue”, a tale of two idealistic lovers. (“Dazzling blue, roses red, fine white linen /To make a marriage bed /And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through /And dream our dreams of dazzling blue.”)

Paul Simon
“Love and Hard Times” depicts Simon as the Seeker of God, love and divine intervention. It’s a graceful ballad that draws you in as Simon’s voice articulates his love of another with a delicate intimacy. Without a trace of irony, he sings, “I loved her the first time I saw her /I know that’s an old songwriting cliché /Loved you the first time I saw you / Can’t describe it any other way.” That song is immediately reinforced by the up tempo track, “Love is Eternal Sacred Light”: "Love is eternal sacred light/Free from the shackles of time /Evil is darkness, sight without sight /A demon that feeds on the mind /Love is eternal sacred light.”

For the exquisite ballad, “Questions for the Angels”, one of the best songs Simon has written, he looks for God in the details of the tragic surroundings in the slums of New York City. (“A pilgrim on a pilgrimage / Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge / His sneakers torn / In the hour when the homeless move their cardboard blankets …Questions for the angels /Who believes in angels? / I do / Fools and pilgrims all over the world.”) Simon has a quality to his voice here that is unintentionally seductive. He engages the listener in a personal way. The only other singers who can pull that off are Ray LaMontagne or Ron Sexmith. (Simon's is a soft, yet natural. vocal quality that is solitary, intimate and beautiful.)

As always, Simon explores the foundations of music in a thematic way, one that opens his work up to a variety of cultural influences. His earliest hit, without Art Garfunkel, was the reggae-influenced “Mother and Child Reunion” (1972). While that song may have been considered an experiment, his album Graceland (1986) became an intentional exploration of African rhythms. That record also succeeded in becoming a portal for most listeners to enter the newly branded “world music” scene. Four years after Graceland, Simon released The Rhythm of the Saints (1990), one of my favourite albums, that offered poetic social commentary that's powered by the rhythms of South America. If Simon had stopped writing and recording at that time, he would still leave a legacy of great songs. But the good news is he still had the inspiration and the time to write and arrange songs, not only for Broadway (see 1997's underrated The Capeman), but also in the straight-ahead pop format of Surprise, released in 2006. That record featured 3 songs co-written with Brian Eno. This fresh collaboration inspired Simon to create an album that was engaging and intimate. 
In 2005, Simon stated publicly, “I'm trying to be as honest as I can expressing myself musically and lyrically, editing out what might be considered obscure but not trying to oversimplify or be condescending.” That thoughtful process serves the songwriter quite well on So Beautiful or So What. It’s a record that explores life, death and the after life. This diverse album of songs, like most of his catalogue, has a mix of African and American influences. The music is layered to pull you in slowly and release you with ease. It’s not designed to hit you over the head. Mind you, Simon’s music has never been that aggressive. He would rather give you a gentle tug on the arm to grab your attention. Consequently, So Beautiful or So What is as good as any album he’s ever released.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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