So Beautiful or So What
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2011, Volume 18, #8
Written by John Metzger
Thu November 17, 2011, 05:30 AM CST
Some would say that after the release of The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon found himself in the midst of a musical rut. While itís true that Songs from the Capeman is one of the weakest outings in his canon ó this shouldnít be surprising considering its contents were culled from Simonís failed Broadway musical ó the other efforts he released (Youíre the One and Surprise) deserved greater recognition than they received. Nevertheless, there is something truly inspired about Simonís latest set So Beautiful or So What, and in some ways, it highlights the places where Simon went astray in the past two decades.
It is difficult to know precisely which came first ó the creation of So Beautiful or So What or the idea to re-issue the entirety of Simonís back catalogue along with a newly compiled, two-disc retrospective Songwriter. Regardless, these events dovetailed neatly to provide a fitting encapsulation of Simonís career. Throughout So Beautiful or So What, Simon doesnít really veer off the beaten path that was paved by his past works. Instead, he merely rearranged the cobblestones to build something new, while also leaving their origins wholly identifiable.
In many ways, So Beautiful or So What follows the blueprint laid down by many classic artists in that it plays like a greatest-hits collection, even though it is filled with all-new material. For example, the African grooves of Graceland permeate tracks like The Afterlife and Love Is Eternal Sacred Light. Elsewhere, the theatricality of Songs from the Capeman surfaces in Love and Hard Times, and the southern gospel harmonies that were used to tremendous effect on There Goes Rhyminí Simon return in full-force to propel Love & Blessings.
Considering the titles to his latest batch of songs, it is not surprising that throughout So Beautiful or So What, Simon is focused upon the sorts of spiritual matters that consume many peopleís minds as they approach their 70th birthday. Ironically, Getting Ready for Christmas Day ó a tune about setting aside material possessions, which features a sample of a sermon by Rev. J.M. Gates ó became the albumís first hit in the weeks leading into last yearís holiday season. It established the tone for an effort that seeks the answers to some big questions.
Yet, Simon also uses So Beautiful or So What to poke fun at the religious sector. In The Afterlife, he envisions long lines and bureaucratic policies. On Love and Hard Times, he imagines that God is pondering a decision either to continue watching over the Earth or to leave it behind in order to found new creations. In answer, the Almighty returns in the subsequent track Love Is Eternal Sacred Light and isnít exactly pleased with the darkness that covers the planet.
In the end, Simon is really less concerned with divinity than he is with simply gleaning deeper meaning from life itself. Love, beauty, art ó these are the things that he knows reflect truth. Too often, though, they are left undiscovered as people choose instead not only to embrace the literal translations of spiritual texts, but also to worship the false idols of modern society. As Simon sings on the title track, "Life is what you make of it ó So beautiful, or so what."
Of Further Interest...
So Beautiful or So What is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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