Sunday, April 17, 2011

Paul Simon's Beautiful Comeback

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:

Downtown Brooklyn
The pilgrim is passing a billboard

That catches his eye

It’s Jay-Z

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.

1 comment:

le0pard13 said...

You've got me curious about this one. It'd be great to so another great PS album. Thanks.