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It's been a while since Paul Simon released an album of original songs and his latest one has been delayed to coincide with his UK tour. I seem to have had this on order from Amazon forever but now I have it and have to say that 'So Beautiful or So What' has been well worth the wait. In my opinion, this is Paul Simon's best album since Graceland although, for me, Graceland remains the standout album of his career. However, unlike Graceland or even Rhythm of the Saints, both of which espoused one particular ethnic musical culture, this is an album which defies ethnic description. It's full of quirky rhythms from several different cultures although much of the music is firmly rooted in the United States, be it gospel, Cajun, Native American or early skiffle and rock 'n' roll. There's even something of Gene Vincent (remember him?) in a couple of the songs.
There can't be many people on the planet who would be unable to sing at least one Paul Simon song. He's been around almost as long as rock music and his longevity is surely down to his ability to grow and develop with the music. He's a consummate songwriter and every album release is a revelation with no two of his recordings ever sounding alike although his slightly nasal singing voice is as distinctive as ever. Initially this album seems to be simply a return to his American roots with gospel and Cajun influences and rhythms but then suddenly it goes off at a tangent and influences from Africa, South America, possibly even Australia come creeping in.
This is music from a master songwriter, a man of the world and one who has always been open to new musical interpretations of the 'folk/rock' genre and I get the feeling this latest album is the culmination of a lifetime of musical and philosophical ideas. Several decades ago, Paul Simon wrote a song which said 'I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song. I'm twenty-two now but I won't be for long'. Well, this an offering of ten songs from a man now facing his seventieth birthday and with a lifetime's experiences gone into formulating his own particular philosophy, much of which is unveiled to us here.
The messages are never overtly religious but are spiritual for the most part, although some include political comment and all of them are thought provoking. However, Paul Simon never takes himself seriously for too long and frequently he gives us the more humorous side of life. He's asking the questions many of us have been asking for years and never managed to come up with the right answers. Maybe, just maybe, Paul Simon's gone some way to answering them here.
The album is priced at £8.93 for the standard version or £7.10 for the MP3 download, available from 13 June 2011.
I apologise to those who prefer a broad overview of an album but all the tracks are worthy of comment and I've therefore written just a few words about each of the ten tracks. I've given links to YouTube in case you want to sample any of these excellent songs.
1. Getting Ready for Christmas Day (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DA81JjI40V0&feature=relmfu)
The album kicks off in up tempo mood with a song that's thoroughly North American in origin, much of it being based on and inspired by a sermon recorded back in 1941 by the Reverend J M Gates, an Atlanta preacher. The song is upbeat and the message is political, with a backing which is full of twanging guitars that immediately conjures up images of the deep South, and this is further emphasised by the gospel elements demonstrated here by snippets from the Rev Gates' sermon, hand clapping and the use of the spoken repetition of the words 'Get ready'.
2. The Afterlife (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLDQZYQYFiQ)
One of the strongest songs on the album and also one of my favourites, the rhythms in this whimsical song are mainly Cajun with an accordion accompaniment that just screams Louisiana. This song blends strong musical backing with great song writing technique. It's Paul Simon at his slightly bewildered best, pondering on what the afterlife will really be like. His wry view is that there's a strong possibility Heaven will be very similar in at least one bureaucratic respect to life on Earth. 'You gotta fill out a form first. And then you wait in the line', which sounds about right! And when he actually gets to meet God 'in the vastness of space', he's so overwhelmed all he can think to say, in true Gene Vincent style, is 'Bee Bop a Lula'.
3. Dazzling Blue (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muJLjuq8Iuk)
The beginning of Dazzling Blue sounds almost Native American in rhythm if not in tone, with a hypnotic percussive beat which sounds for all the world like hands drumming out a rhythm on an empty bottle or maybe it's the rhythm of natives from much further south because there is also a sense of South America about it too and I'm not absolutely sure but there's something that sounds suspiciously like a didgeridoo hidden in the backing track as well. Whatever ethnicity is attached to the rhythms, the sentiments of the song are very much Paul Simon at his most lyrical. This is one of my favourite songs on the album and his distinctive voice blends perfectly with the different rhythms of the world to bring a unique perspective on life.
4. Rewrite (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2oDowFw5WM)
Another strong offering is Rewrite. There's some pretty nifty guitar work on this track with a strangely attractive staccato rhythm, which could almost be described as arrhythmic. This is slightly softened by South American sounding harp-like music, although it may well be produced by a guitar or possibly even a sitar. (That's the trouble with downloads: no sleeve notes to let you know what instrument is what!)
5. Love and Hard Times (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVePccVoMCw)
The piano intro moves the mood into a much slower, slightly religious and introspective song hinting at God's abandonment of mankind before moving from the religious to secular love and becomes a melancholy sounding little ballad. There isn't much in the way of definable tempo here and, for me, this is the weakest song on the album.
6. Love is Eternal Sacred Light (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPWVwylAilM)
This track was something of a surprise. Going by the title, I'd expected it to be a hymn and have a strong Christian message but far from being dirge-like, it has an upbeat tempo and is about a much more scientific light, that which grew out of the Big Bang! Musically, it begins with a weird electronic noise which develops into a strong country sound to the backing with guitars and wailing harmonica. There are elements of vintage Paul Simon here, too.
7. Amulet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfxdT1hPz5o)
This is a small little musical interlude. It's very short, an acoustic jazzy little number.
8. Questions for the Angels (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhyKv3s3glE)
This track is a real contradiction with sweet and lyrical sounding tones belied by the stark reality of the words, at least those in the first verse. The words paint a bleak picture of America's largest city.
'A pilgrim on a pilgrimage, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge
His sneakers torn
In the hour when the homeless move their cardboard blankets
And the new day is born'
This is Paul Simon again in introspective mood, asking questions that possibly only the angels can answer. If you choose the wrong path, can you change track? Who believes in angels? The song is mainly acoustic and is another track which doesn't have any definable beat but again is all about the lyrics. This is another rather melancholy little ballad.
9. Love and Blessings
This song sees a complete change of tempo. Love and Blessings takes on the rhythms of several genres and the beginning has a a slightly jazzy or maybe almost skiffle-like sound to it with an electric guitar intro. Once Paul Simon joins his voice to the music, the feel becomes similar to that of a negro spiritual with brief flashes of music from south of the Mason-Dixon line. This song doesn't immediately capture the imagination but after several listens, is rapidly becoming one of my favourites.
10. So Beautiful or So What
The title track ends the album and is another track with a southern states feel to it with a thrumming electric guitar intro. This is possibly a summing up of his fairly inconclusive and not altogether positive philosophy of life with the message being that life's like a game of chance.
'I'm going to tell my kids a bedtime story,
a play without a plot.
Will it have a happy ending?
Maybe yeah, maybe not.
I'll tell them life is what you make of it.
So beautiful or so what.'
The almost septuagenarian Paul Simon has never been one to lay on his laurels, of which he has garnered many and probably every single one that the music business has to offer, as well as an Oscar nomination. With his latest album "So Beautiful or So What" Simon brings us ten beautifully crafted tracks that belie his age and keep him as contemporary as any of the newest artists on the scene today. It has already reached #4 on the American Billboard 200 chart and after 7 weeks in the top 100, doesn't look like it's on its way out soon. When it is released later this month in the UK, who knows how well it will do.
What can you expect from his latest collection of songs? First of all, you get something that is instantly identifiable as being typical Paul Simon, but with none of the boredom that might come with it. Once again, Simon mixes genres as smoothly as a bartender mixes his favourite cocktail, and with just as much flavour. There are nods to his previous albums that saw him inject African sounds on one song, while on another he has a Gospel preacher speaking to his congregation in the background. Throw in some Blues, a touch of Jazz, a splash of pop, a handful of rock and even a lovingly composed guitar solo track, followed by a thoughtful folk ballad, and you're just scratching the surface here.
Of course, Simon's lyrics are as evocative and poetic as ever, and he also doesn't shy away from some political commentary along the way. In the opening song "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" he grabs us with one line that couldn't be timelier:
"I've got a nephew in Iraq. It's his third time back. But it's ending up the way it began. With the luck of a beginner he'll be eating turkey dinner on a mountaintop in Pakistan."
This, together with other lines that reflect America's present economic problems combined with some faith which brings hope makes both a powerful statement as well as an expression of understanding. This hopeful feel on the back of life's difficulties comes into play again in the song "Rewrite". Here he notes he's working at the carwash during the day and at night he's rewriting his novel which he hopes to turn into cash. But Simon never let's faith get the better of his message, as exampled in "Love and Hard Times" where he sings about "God and his only son paid a courtesy call on earth one Sunday morning" and then later when they leave notes they think the people of the planet are slobs, and immediately afterwards changes the focus of the song altogether. In his song "Afterlife" he tells you that after you die you have to "fill out a form first, and then wait in the line". It is this type of wry humour which Simon drizzles over all his songs without ever giving any reason to take offence.
His quieter songs also get special treatment. For instance, the song "Dazzling Blue" has some of those African instrumentals and background vocals to keep a love song from sounding sappy or ordinary. Then again, he gives his song "Love & Blessings" a soulful overtone to begin with and then throws in an upbeat bridge to keep it interesting. He even makes fun of songwriters, including him, when the focus changes in "Love and Hard Times" and he says "I loved her the first time I saw her, I know that's an old time song writing cliché." From then on this song becomes a romantic ballad that has a fluid, silky feel to it. On the other hand, he also peps one love song with "Love is Eternal Sacred Light". Here he goes almost full-force Gospel, and throws in a bridge in the middle using his lowest vocal register, just to emphasize his lyric.
While all this may sound like this is a complex compilation of eclectic songs, which might be difficult to listen to, but the truth is that even on first listening you'll be charmed by what you hear. The initial feeling here is something deceptively simple, but the more you listen, the more you'll get the nuances and undertones. You'll slowly catch the different and varied instrumental backgrounds, while your appreciation of the more acoustic tracks that spotlight both Simon's vocal and guitar talents grows. In other words, this is a masterful album which many are saying is likely to be one of, if not his very best. For an almost 70 year old man who "hasn't a brain cell left since Vietnam", and has been in the business for well over 50 years, that's pretty damned good, if nothing short of miraculous. There's no reason why this album deserves any less than five stars out of five and it comes highly recommended.
Davida Chazan © June 2011
This album will be released on Amazon in the UK on June 13 when it will be available for MP3 download or you can pre-order the CD for £8.93.
Of course, if you want to see more about this album and other works by Paul Simon, you can always visit his official website at www.paulsimon.com where you'll also get information about his upcoming concert tour which includes stops in Ireland, Scotland and several other UK cities (and ending with one concert in Israel, which I already have tickets for).
1. Getting Ready For Christmas Day
2. The Afterlife
3. Dazzling Blue
5. Love and Hard Times
6. Love Is Eternal Sacred Light
8. Questions for the Angels
9. Love and Blessings
10. So Beautiful Or So What
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Getting Ready for Christmas Day
2 The Afterlife
3 Dazzling Blue
5 Love and Hard Times
6 Love Is Eternal Sacred Light
8 Questions for the Angels
9 Love & Blessings
10 So Beautiful Or So What