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So Beautiful Or So What


Paul Simon


Hear Music

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I have been a Paul Simon fan for, well, most of my life. No seriously -- some of the earliest songs that i remember liking were his 70s solo work (Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard still gets me going!). I have consistently enjoyed his music, and tend to spend time with any of his records. Of course, Mr. Simon is getting on in years (he turned 70 this past October), so new records are rare occurrences.

He still makes music though, and more interestingly, Simon continues to try to push himself musically. No two records ever sound the same, as he picks different collaborators and song-writing partners. This is his first release since Surprise, the 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno, and it is rather different. I think that this is a stronger album in that it is more focused than Surprise.

This is also a funkier album, with Simon again collaborating with a long list (seriously -- there are about 40 people in the credits) of collaborators, many from Africa and South America. He explored integrating the music of those regions into his folk rock back in the 1980s, and here the strange rhythms make most of the album move at a jaunty, happy pace.

The record starts with the epic Getting Ready for Christmas Day in which samples of an old, emotional sermon, with call and response, are looped under his guitar and singing, all wrapped up in a great foot-stomping beat. This is an old blues romp. On the other hand, The Afterlife is complexly jazzy, like much of Rhythm of the Saints. I love the seesawing accordion and scattered drums in this song.

Dazzling Blue starts with an African voice singing lightly over bongos, and then Simon comes in with his guitar, picking away. As the song grows, there are layers of vocal harmony, including a high-pitched voice that really reminds me of the departed Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This is a really lovely song.

Rewrite brings in a harp to another foot-stomping, funky bluesy tune, which is an interesting effect. But Love and Hard Times is a slow piano ballad. This is Paul Simon at his most melancholy. After that downer interlude, the funky beat comes back for Love Is Eternal Sacred Light. I like that he refers to a previous song in the lyrics here ("Bomb in the marketplace" is a line from The Boy in the Bubble) just to see if we are paying attention.

Amulet is mostly instrumental, just Simon on his acoustic guitar with some very faint singing. It is pretty, and kind of different for him. He follows this up with Questions for the Angels, which is a slow guitar ballad with emphasis placed on the lyrics. This is one of his "thinking songs", and although i am with him on the journey, i sometimes find these types of songs get a little old faster than the other types of songs he does. And this one gets weird, where he sings about traveling to New York and seeing a billboard that has Jay-Z on it, trying to sell clothes. A very odd line, and sometime later in the song he references Homeward Bound obliquely. This is a pretty enough song, and very strangely introspective.

The beat is back for Love & Blessings, which features a lovely old sample of some female group singing "Ain't no song like an old song", to which he sings along. This is another fun tune.

And then finally the record ends with the title track, So Beautiful Or So What. Here he just goes all out for honky tonk, with a reverbing guitar, enthusiastic clapping, and stomps for percussion. It is another joyously active song, and ends the record on a high note.

Overall, i really like this album, but then again i am a fan. People who have not been impressed with the work Simon has done since Graceland will likely be unimpressed.

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