So Beautiful Or So What by Paul Simon
After the dissolution of the legendary folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, principal songwriter/co-lead vocalist Paul Simon released a string of five critically and commercially successful solo albums, the most famous of which, 1986's afro pop-influenced Graceland, proved to be perhaps the most formative as well, as all of his subsequent releases have found the artist integrating world beat influences into his signature Americana-inflected sound. Taking a big break from recording after 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon teamed up with Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott to create the Broadway musical The Capeman, which is widely regarded as a failure (and also was). In 2000 he returned with his first really mediocre solo release, You're the One but, six years after that, something amazing happened: in collaborating with legendary revivifier of rock dinosaurs Brian Eno he produced a latter day masterpiece in Surprise: which found him expanding upon world beat and flirting with ambient and trip-hop as well (though six years after it was trendy for old rock statesmen to do so). A whole five years later he returns with So Beautiful or So What: though produced by Phil Ramone, it is in many respects an extension on the sound of the previous release, even if it is somewhat less furiously creative.
Perhaps most startling about the current release, as well as Surprise, is Simon's interest in experimenting and further developing his 40-year-old sound, and the youthful energy he seems to evince in the process; and of course the more obvious point is that Simon is unique amongst his generational peers merely for producing new music, let alone music of any substance. Opening track "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," notable for its heavily processed and compressed acoustic guitars, is refreshingly unique considering that the writing of new Christmas songs has fallen out of fashion, and a welcome entry into the canon; it's also amazing that, at nearly 70 years old, Simon seems to have not lost his voice; then again, it was always a gentle, understated one. "The Afterlife" marries a relaxed, conversational vocal delivery of an excellent twisty lyric to stellar production values, understated but melodious drums and heavily treated guitars. "Dazzling Blue" and "Rewrite" may be formulaic and sleepy, respectively, but the latter is redeemed slightly by some lovely bluegrass guitar flourishes. The showtunesy "Love and Hard Times," the first of three tracks on the album whose titles begin with the word "love," suffers a bit for its scattershot structure and reliance upon sentimental tropes but is more thoroughly engaging than the preceding three track.
Multi-layered rock "Love is Eternal Sacred Light" is perhaps the most exciting track here, with its thunderous drums, rockabilly guitars and another inexplicably energized Simon performance. "Amulet," an emotional instrumental guitar interlude, is followed by the gorgeous "Questions for the Angels": recalling Simon's early '80s period, the track is punctuated by warm, melancholy guitar arrangements and a narcoleptic whisper-sung performance. Concluding the set is the eerie, spacey and mostly successful "Love & Blessings" and title track "So Beautiful or So What," a hazy electric country-rocker which doesn't really make sense as a grand finale but at least it caps off an album short, to the point and, to avoid further "sweet old man" condescension, pleasantly surprising.
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