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So Beautiful or So What

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Album Review

Touted as Paul Simon’s return to traditional songwriting — Simon writing alone with a guitar and a pen instead of constructing songs around rhythmic loops the way he’s done since Graceland — So Beautiful or So What doesn’t feel like a return to the ‘70s. From the moment the record kicks in with the heavy blues stomp and samples of “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” it’s evident that while Simon may have changed his style of composing, he’s not abandoning his method of record-making, which is distinctly engaged with the present. When Bob Dylan sings about Alicia Keys he does so with an old-fashioned swing, but when Simon writes a verse about Jay-Z he does it within the context of an album anchored in polyrhythms, chattering guitars, and digital loops, where the handful of delicate acoustic numbers function as a counterpoint to the clean bustle of the rest of the record. Certainly, So Beautiful or So What isn’t as reliant on soundscapes as its Brian Eno-produced predecessor, but it is no rejection of texture, just as it is in no way a repudiation of the musical sensibility of Graceland, whose rhythms are as firmly felt here as on any record he’s made since. Rather, So Beautiful elegantly touches upon each of Simon’s solo signatures within a compact 38 minutes, its brevity indicating the precision of Simon’s focus. There are no wasted sounds or words here, and if he offers some of his simplest, prettiest tunes in years (“Love & Hard Times,” “Amulet”) and spends a considerable chunk of the record dwelling on spiritual matters, the album is neither steeped in nostalgia nor haunted by death. Paul Simon is remarkably clear-eyed in assessing the modern world and his place in it, not shying away from contemporary sounds — if anything, the production is occasionally a tad too brittle, like so many digital-age recordings — but not chasing after youth either. He’s merely living in his time and reporting, returning with an album that’s vivid, vibrant, and current in a way none of his peers have managed to achieve.

Biography

Born: 13 October 1941 in Newark, NJ

Genre: Pop

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Paul Simon is one of the most successful and respected songwriters of the second half of the 20th century. Rising to fame in the mid-'60s, Simon's songs were mature and literate, but also melodically engaging, and spoke to the concerns and uncertainties of a generation. As the 1960s gave way to the '70s and '80s, Simon's work tended to focus on the personal rather than...
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