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Paul Simon's "So beautiful, So What" Reviewed

Someone once told me, what’s love anyway? Just a bunch of molecules, chemicals?… yes it is, but it’s also quite extraordinary that people can still believe in it and be moved by it, even late in their life.

The word ‘Love’ is in the title of three songs of Paul Simon’s new album, ‘So Beautiful and So What’, and the love theme never leaves the scene of the philosophical reflection running through the songs, about god, the possibility of an afterlife, or the eventuality of a destiny.

The album starts with the pulsating zydeco of ‘Getting ready for Christmas Day’, sampling a 1941 sermon by Reverend J. M. Gates, and announcing the religious undertone of the album although Simon has said he was not a religious man.

Musically, there is a diversity, and a large use of many unusual instruments, showing all the influences he has accustomed us over the years; the bright African guitars and happy rhythms of Graceland are definitively present in many songs, even when he complains about an annoying post-mortem bureaucraty in ‘The Afterlife’, a song whose fluid melody runs a little like the second song of ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’ ‘Can’t Run But’.

‘Dazzling Blue’ seems to be the most luminous of all tracks, reconciling so many influences in one song, Vincent Nguini’s African guitar, some bluegrass banjo and fiddle, starting even with Indian rhythms. In this extraordinary and exotic fusion, Simon finds his roots again, at ease as he has been many times before, like a blue, red and white Americana tune, absorbing the whole world music under some African skies.

The syncopated African rhythms, the Kora and the lamenting-haranguing vocals crying for help in ‘Rewrite’ give a little bit of everything with a storyline about a blue-collar worker toying with the idea of rewriting his life and ending with a playful whistling part.

But there is two distinguishable animals in ‘So Beautiful and so what’, and for some less musically inventive songs, Simon leaves the world music scene and its exotic beats to return to a sort of traditional orchestration of piano guitar and strings, like in ‘Love and Hard Times’, a ballad dragging a little bit.
It is the same for  ‘Questions for the Angels’, which, with its slow chaotic melody and weird lyrics about pilgrims and homeless, gives him the opportunity to find inspiration in some of his old lyrics (‘if an empty train in a railroad station/Calls you to its destination’ strangely reminding ‘I'm sittin' in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination’ from 'Homeward Bound') and to even mention Jay-Z, ‘It’s Jay-Z/He’s got a kid on each knee/He’s wearing clothes that he wants us to try’, a strange (or ironic?) idea to introduce this kind of billboard imagery in a song that questions no less than the angels.

But the music recovers with his original take on Gospel and a modern pulsing beat on ‘Love is an eternal Sacred Light’, a sort of road trip song and another meditation about life, politics, love and evil,… ‘Bomb in the marketplace’ repeats Simon in the middle of the song, then mixing astrophysics and mythology, ‘Big Bang/That’s a joke that I made up/Once when I had eons to kill’, jumping to his detachment from modern pop music, ‘Check out the radio, pop music station/That don’t sound like my music to me’, accentuating crazy paradoxes, echoing what he had already done in ‘The Boy in the Bubble’s lyrics.

He rebounds again with the Southern-atmosphere-infused ‘Love and Blessing’ with a ‘Bop-bop-a-whoa’ chorus sang like a negro spiritual alternating with delicate guitar and a surprising clarinet.
The title track, which ends the relatively short album, is the most bluesy and one of the most serious track, evoking Martin Luther King’s assassination and the irony of life and what we can make of it, ‘Mistaking value for the price/And play a game with time and love/like pair of rolling dice’.

It‘s quite expected to reflect on life at 69, but the album's contemplative narrative about life, death, God and destiny is never oppressive or preachy, but always light as the bouncing rhythms of the music. And I don’t know about God, but love seems to be the quest all along. ‘Thank God, I found you in time’ Simon sings at the end of ‘Love and Hard Times’, and he does find what he is looking for many times in this fusion hybrid music that could well summed up his whole career.


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