So Beautiful Or So What/ Paul Simon
SO 2011’s over. If one looks back at the rock and pop releases of the year, there were some highs and some lows. Like all years.
On the negative side, many well-known rock groups produced albums that had some individually great songs but yet lacked the extra brilliance overall. Coldplay’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’ seemed too pop-pish when compared to their older material. On ‘I’m With You’, funk-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers sounded grossly repetitive, in spite of a new guitarist. Radiohead’s ‘The King Of Limbs’ and REM’s ‘Collapse Into Now’ were reasonably good, but definitely not among their best. Nickelback had a crackling rocker in ‘Here And Now’, but it was the same old ‘whine’ in a new bottle.
The goodies included ‘Codes And Keys’ by alternative rockers Death Cab For Cutie, ‘The King Is Dead’ by folk-rock outfit The Decemberists, the much-acclaimed PJ Harvey album ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘21’, which proved that Adele is the female voice to look out for in the next few years. Superb albums all. But if this blogger is to choose his album of the year, it would be Paul Simon’s weirdly-titled ‘So Beautiful Or So What’.
The second greatest Paul (the first being McCartney, of course), Simon turned 70 on October 13. At a time when many of his living contemporaries (barring Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and maybe commercially, Carlos Santana) have ceased to recreate the magic of the past, he came out with one of his best solo efforts. Among the 12 he’s released so far, this one is next only to his 1986 masterpiece ‘Graceland’, in my opinion.
Many of us would have grown up on this genius’s work with the evergreen Simon & Garfunkel. Songs like ‘The Sound Of Silence’, ‘The Boxer’, ‘El Condor Pasa’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘America’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’ have been part of our musical upbringing. In comparison, he hasn’t really been too prolific or consistent as a solo artiste, though he’s had some quality recordings like ‘Graceland’, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘One Trick Pony’ and ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’.
Simon’s latest album comes five years after ‘Surprise’, where he’d teamed up with the highly-innovative Brian Eno. Listening to ‘So Beautiful Or So What’, two things stand out. One is Paul’s voice, which sounds like he’s still in his 40s or even 30s if you please. Yes, there are instances when he seems to be inspired by Dylan, more in the pattern of delivery than in the vocal texture — like on the song ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light’. But there are also times when his voice is filled with youthful romance — like ‘Dazzling Blue’, which features Indian percussionist Karaikudi R. Mani.
The second plus point is the quality of Simon’s lyrics, which are as evocative and elegant as before. ‘Dazzling Blue’ and the title song are simple but beautiful. ‘Love And Hard Times’ and ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day’ have a religious flavour. But the ones that stand out are ‘The Afterlife’, where a dead man talks of his experience of meeting God, and ‘Rewrite’, which is about a person who’s ashamed of his part but optimistic about his future.
Aided by Phil Ramone’s lush production, ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ is an album that grows on repeated listening. So what if it doesn’t have the sheer experimentation of ‘Graceland’ and its South African flavour, or ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’ and its Latin American feel? In fact, this is straight-ahead songwriting at its best. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.