For a while now, the line on Paul Simon has been that he revivified his pop-folk sound with the worldbeat-influenced Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints, and that he’s been light on good ideas ever since. Not so. Simon’s Broadway musical The Capeman was a costly misfire, but its songs are impressively ambitious and often moving, and 2000’s You’re The One and 2006’s Surprise mixed heartfelt snapshot-of-life songs with a few risk-taking sonic experiments. So it’d be inapt to say that Simon’s latest, So Beautiful Or So What, finds the 69-year-old in a more creatively fruitful place than he’s been in 20 years. This album is just another periodic dispatch from a musician who hasn’t run out of clever, catchy ways to describe the world in which he lives.
That said, So Beautiful Or So What does have an unusually urgent feel, possibly because Simon has his eyes trained on eternity. The album opens with “Getting Ready For Christmas Day,” a jittery pastiche of an old call-and-response gospel sermon and the thoughts of a working man anxiously counting his blessings. Then Simon heads directly into “The Afterlife,” in which he imagines his first day in heaven, dealing with bureaucracy. Throughout the record, Simon sings about people trying to get right with God, while God passes by cursorily. So Beautiful blends acoustic ballads like the yearning “Love And Hard Times” with rhythm-happy uptempo numbers like “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light.” But whether he’s feeling rocky or mellow, Simon keeps toying with song-structure, unafraid to change directions if a new thought occurs. At this stage of his long career, Simon has ready access to every genre he’s ever dabbled in, and he draws on them as needed, while contemplating how an irrational world is sustained by the ultimate irrationality of faith.