I’m a bit behind the ball on this one – it was released last week – but there’s a reason. Paul Simon’s Graceland was one of the first albums I ever owned – I believe I purchased it (along with The Beatles’ Revolver) around the time I turned ten, after hearing my father play it and it remains one of my absolute favorites to this day. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Graceland” are simply fantastic songs and there is an air of carefully crafted spontaneity and genuine musical enjoyment on Graceland that I never found in Simon and Garfunkel. Unfortunately, everything of Paul Simon’s I have subsequently picked up has failed to live up to Graceland; those records simply lacked the lyrical and musical energy that so fully envelops Graceland. Needless to say, when I heard Simon, who turns seventy this year, was releasing a new album, I was not the first in line on release day.
I was pleasantly surprised however, to find his newest record So Beautiful or So What comes closer to capturing the characteristic energy of Graceland than many of his previous efforts. On So Beautiful, Mr. Simon’s predilection for world music and pre-rock n’ roll bebop remains strong and omnipresent. On this go around, however, it feels less forced than his other recent efforts – the influences are melded into catchy and lively tracks like “Rewrite” and “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” (definitely not the sappy song you might expect from the title) and the relatively bare instrumentation suits the approach well. Mr. Simon’s voice remains pure as ever as does his notable guitar prowess. The lyrics on So Beautiful tend to concern broader themes such as love and spirituality rather than the singular stories prevalent on Graceland but as usual, Mr. Simon a does good job resisting over-simplification. Philosophical stances on spirituality, religion, and love are presented with engaging and cleverly turned phrases that belie the inherent complexities of such issues.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of So Beautiful is Mr. Simon’s decision to return to his aforementioned comfort zone of world music and bebop fusion. At one point he sings, ‘Check out the radio, pop music station / that don’t sound like my music to me.’ No it does not, and that’s a good thing. Rather than attempting to modernize his sound to appeal to younger listeners or experiment in new genres, on So Beautiful or So What Mr. Simon simply and refreshingly does what he does best.