So Beautiful or So What by Paul Simon album review

By Jared Ingham

The year Paul Simon was born the Blitz was still raging, the Germans invaded Russia and the Japanese took an unhealthy interest in American naval ships anchored at Pearl Harbour. 1941 seems an impossibly long time ago now, but seventy years on and Simon’s still a creative force. It’s reassuring to see his new album, So Beautiful or So What, deservedly lingering towards the top end of the UK album chart.

His is a career that doesn’t lend itself to a snappy précis, but the main point to get across is that the breadth and depth of his contribution to popular music since the 1960s has been huge. As the main songwriter in Simon and Garfunkel, and as a solo artist since he ended his partnership with Art Garfunkel in 1970, time and again he’s crafted classic songs that are now part of the popular consciousness in America, Britain and plenty of other place besides. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Mrs Robinson’, ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and a handful of others are absolute stone-cold classics. Anybody who tells you otherwise should be physically assaulted with a Spice Girls Greatest Hits CD.

Simon’s influence has been widely recognised, in music and beyond. Since the 1970s he’s been active with a range of charities and, to his credit, he was a fervent anti-apartheid campaigner. He took the brave decision to record his 1986 album Graceland, one of many forays into world music, in South Africa as apartheid was coming to an end. A basketful of Grammys and other awards even complement a place in a previous Time magazine list of ‘100 People Who Shaped the World’.

So Beautiful or So What is Simon’s first album in five years and his twelfth effort as a solo artist. These are songs from someone who’s anything but jaded, though. This is a mostly bright and breezy album, jaunty, light and upbeat, sung by an accomplished songwriter at seventy years young. Simon’s voice sounds pretty much as fresh as it did in the sixties too.

His storytelling skill and inventiveness is here from start to finish. For him lyrics are as fundamental a component of his songs as anything and he constructs them with a healthy amount of care and consideration. As a result, the songs repay attention and a bit of thought. ‘Questions for the Angels’, which isn’t one of the stronger tracks, is a tale about a homeless man, or seems to be. It ends with the strange question “If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it should disappear would a zebra grazing in the African savannah care enough to shed one zebra tear?” Er, maybe Paul.

Anyway, that and a reference to his hit ‘Homeward Bound’, are enough to give us pause for thought. And that’s the case for much of the album. We might not always know exactly what the hell point he’s trying to make, but we do know that he is trying to tell us something and that he’s doing it in a thought-provoking and pleasant way.

The bulk of the songs canter along rather nicely. ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’, ‘The Afterlife’, ‘Dazzling Blue’, ‘Rewrite’, ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light’, ‘Love and Blessings’ and ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ all have the requisite zing to hit the mark. Throughout there’s an eclectic mix of musical reference points that add interest, rather than overburden the listener. Combined with the aforementioned breeziness, Simon leaves the unmistakable impression that he’s just the kind of interesting and affable bloke that you couldn’t help but like should you cross paths.

Even when he slows up, there’s an undeniable hopefulness in his music. ‘Love and Hard Times’, something barmy about God and Jesus visiting earth, is soothing. Instrumental ‘Amulet’ would deserve a place on any of his previous albums.

Listen to So Beautiful or So What and most likely you’ll feel better for it. This is a gentle and thoughtful collection of songs, a ray of sunshine from a masterful old hand. After a listen you shouldn’t think anything other than that Simon is undoubtedly a rare talent and that it would be worth delving into his back catalogue sooner rather than later.

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