It’s been lost for so long, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was never going to return. But fans of Paul Simon can rejoice, because after years of searching, he’s finally found his muse. “So Beautiful or So What” is his strongest album in 25 years, and I suspect one day will fit quite nicely aside “Graceland,” “Paul Simon,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” “Hearts and Bones” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” on the shelf of his best works.
The album opens with, of all things, a Christmas song, and it’s a really good one – in fact, I’m pretty sure, even though we’re only in April, that it will lead off my annual Christmas CD this coming December. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” juxtaposes an old sermon from Reverend J.M. Gates with some of the catchiest, intoxicating music that Simon has written in years. Vincent Nguini’s guitars recall Ray Phiri’s work on “Graceland,” and signal early on that this is an album built on a very open, joyous sound.
As befits a sound where so many different genres are welcome, the musical credits read like the catalogue of a world music store (if such a thing existed) – among the instruments played on these songs are: dobro, tabla, clay pot, djembe, talking drum, viola, flute, English horn, glockenspiel, conga, gongs, celeste, marimba, angklung, and clarinet. Some of the songs sound like they would fit on “Graceland,” while a couple of others – “Love and Hard Times” and “Questions for the Angels” – are more in the “Hearts and Bones” vein.
“Questions for the Angels, a beautiful ballad, also demonstrates that Simon has not lost his lyrical touch. The song begins with this powerful verse:
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
Folded in his backpack pocket
The questions that he copied from his heart
Who am I in this lonely world?
And where will I make my bed tonight?
When twilight turns to dark
Later on, the pilgrim sees this:
The pilgrim is passing a billboard
That catches his eye
He’s got a kid on each knee
He’s wearing clothes that he wants us to try
Throughout the record, Simon reminds us – with phrases that jump out from the record’s musical brew – that there was a time that for many, his claim to fame was his ability to write a memorable lyric. And throughout, the message is hopeful, even as we find ourselves in difficult times. As Elvis Costello perceptively notes in the album’s liner notes,
“These wonderful songs refuse to despair, despite the evidence all around us. “So Beautiful or So What” rejects the allure of fashionable darkness and the hypnosis of ignorance – better to contemplate and celebrate the endurance of the spirit and the persistence of love.”
Welcome back, Paul. It’s good to have you back.