Paul Simon has been criticized for sounding on his new album like, well, Paul Simon, most notably Graceland-era Paul Simon. But so what? Sure, Simon has prided himself since the release of that 1986 masterwork with striving for sonically distinct songs driven by Third- World rhythms, each album sounding different than its predecessor. Yet the critical and commercial success of those subsequent projects has been mixed, reaching a low point with the 1997 release of music from the ambitious Puerto Rican hoodlum musical The Capeman.
But clearly, on this, his 11th solo album, the 69-year-old Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner is comfortable with his own legacy, no longer out to prove himself and creating his best work in a quarter century. While the African and Latin percussion on 1990’s rhythm-heavy outing The Rhythm of the Saints, or the strident soundscapes of 2006’s Brian Eno collaboration Surprise, dominated what some critics saw as a lack of conviction, the new album sets a balance between world-music influences and Simon’s gentle observational lyrics— and that’s important for a wordsmith who often wears his heart on his sleeve.
Indeed, for an album that evokes a sense of wonder, a maturing artist at his creative peak, So Beautiful or So What has but one flaw—brevity (10 tracks that clock in at just over 38 minutes). Simon grabs the listener’s attention from the opening track, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” which kicks off with a soulful dance beat worthy of latter-day Marvin Gaye and includes a sample of a fiery sermon by the Rev. J.M. Gates. It’s the first sign that Simon and co-producer Phil Ramone have seamlessly stitched together diverse musical and cultural influences to create a rich textural canvas for the rest of the songs.
And such songs! Sometimes they evoke the passionate unblemished hope of young lovers, as in “Dazzling Blue,” with its bluegrass-meets-Indian percussion ensemble accompaniment. At other times, as with “Rewrite,” a breezy vocal and shimmering African kora belie a sad tale of a Vietnam vet working at the car wash and dreaming of becoming a screenwriter. Again and again, Simon muses on love and life on songs that contemplate universal themes and, at times, as on “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” deftly juxtapose the cosmic and the worldly.
For a supporting cast, Simon has assembled an impressive lineup that includes chamber-jazz arranger Gil Goldstein, bluegrass heavyweights Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Indian vocalist Karakuidi R. Mani. The instrumentation is an exotic tapestry of violas, sax, celeste, tabla, fiddle, slide baritone guitar, clay pot, kora, harp, and sampled gospel recordings.
Sonically, the CD is warm and punchy. On my turntable, the LP version is “quiet,” but (to my surprise) its soundstage lacks the depth and complexity of the CD (which accounts for a lower sound rating on this review).
For those inspired by So Beautiful or So What to revisit Simon’s celebrated solo catalog, Sony Music has just reissued his first ten solo albums. The digitally remastered expanded editions, including those initially released on the Warner label, have bonus tracks, with some previously unreleased. Also scheduled for release are Blu-ray discs of four solo live video performances.