Thursday 28 July 2011

Paul Simon "So Beautiful Or So What?" (2011) (Revised Review)

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Paul Simon “So Beautiful, Or So What?” (2011)

Getting Ready For Christmas Day/The Afterlife/Dazzling Blue/Rewrite/Love And Hard Times/Love Is Eternal, Sacred Light/Amulet/Questions For The Angels/Love & Blessings/So Beautiful Or So What?

Back in 2005, when I wrote one of my last CD reviews for the Runcorn Weekly News commenting on Paul's then-latest album 'Surprise' (keep an eye out, old copies are worth about - ooh 10p nowadays), I made three points about where Paul Simon’s career was headed: to the future, back to the past and then onwards to the next great adventure (or at least I did till the sub-editors cut it for extra space on Bob The Builder and Dora The Explorer's latest tours and my review of 'The Spice Girls' Greatest Hits', which surprisingly wasn't all made up of swear words).  The first point is felt even more pointedly on 'So Beautiful' than I ever could have guessed. You see, the older Paul Simon gets the more interested he seems to be in modern technology and what other artists are up to outside Paul Simon towers. This isn't the case with most artists, who tend to stay stuck inside their particular bubble for as long as they can get away with (aside from some calamitous flirting with 1980s synthesisers for the most part). Note too that despite forming his career in the great folk-rock flush of the 1960s (or, to be more accurate, in 1964: the only year of the 1960s when folk wasn't in faction and had to be overdubbed with electric instruments to be a hit), Paul has never really paid much attention to what the rest of the world was up to. Yes there was a string of 'hippie' songs on 'Parsley Sage' but even they were written a year ahead of the main party; for the most part the dabblings with jazz and world music or even the retro rock of 'One Trick Pony' released at the height of punk have been years ahead or behind their time. 'Surprise', though, was a surprise mainly because it sounded tonally like an album any fairly accomplished young gun working in 2005 might have produced. Many fans put this down to Brian Eno's 'soundscapes' credit, perhaps forgetting that even Eno's records didn't sound like that anymore. On 'So Beautiful Or So What?' the production is firmly on Paul's own shoulders and it's even more contemporary starting off with the 'scratch' sampling of 'Getting Ready For Christmas Day' and taking in all manner of modern techniques like digital sampling (though typically, it's of a preacher who died long before Paul was born), that modern love of guitar flourishes that was on everything for a couple of years around this time ('Re-Write') and that sort of heavy drum sound common to the 2010s decade on 'Love Is Eternal Sacred Light'. There's even a mention of Jay-Z on 'Questions For Angels' (let's hope Jay-Z slides a Simon and Garfunkel reference into a song soon!) Paul hasn't just been listening to what people are up to on records nowadays, he's absorbed it - and then given it the typical Paul Simon twists to make it work ('Love and Blessings' goes back to the roaring twenties for its main influence and 'The Afterlife', a song that's admittedly pretty universal in scope anyway, recalls the glorious mid 20th century past of at least three continents at once!)

My second point about the past was that Paul has always been, at heart, a nostalgic writer. Even when he was seventeen he was making records using the doo-wop sound he'd loved in his childhood but which had all but passed by the late 1950s or at any rate was using more traditional forms than the likes of The Four Seasons were for a while when they made it hip again round then. Even moving on to when he was twenty-five and first became a 'success', there's always been something older and wiser about Paul than many of his contemporaries: his serious demeanour, old-before-his-time voice and subject matters single him out as the one single writer from the 1960s who seems 'allowed' in modern-day culture to grow old. While the likes of The Who and The Rolling Stones now look vaguely silly trying to re-capture their youth (and I say that as a fan of both - as you'll see in two of our other AAA books) and pretend to look forward and staying relevant (while sounding much the same), Paul Simon has always been the one 1960s hero that didn't assume he was going to die young and wrote through the eyes of older characters long before he became that age. 'So Beautiful Or So What?' feels like another 'Still Crazy After All These Years' but from the point of view of someone who knows he probably counts as 'old' these days rather than merely 'middle aged'. Though again it's something that's long been in his work (perhaps not since 'Hey Schoolgirl' in 1957 but certainly since 'He Was My Brother' was written in 1963), the older Paul has become, the more obsessed he’s become with writing about death and - my third point - the great mystery of what happens after we die, which is the dominant question across this album, something that gets treated as comedy, tragedy and everything in between. Our ending and where we end up next might be so beautiful - but if there's nothing there then do we really feel cheated enough to say 'so what?'

'Surprise' spent some time there, but this time Paul's new album (well, new to the UK: the Americans first heard it back in April and now it's July already and just come out) spends most of its time hanging in the air between life and death, with the exception of one song that actually looks at what might come next (all bureaucracy and angels if you're wondering). Most of this album's characters live in a curious mix of the past and the future: the chance to reunite the family on Christmas Day, planned under the worry that it might be the last with the whole clan what with some of the relatives out fighting wars; the mocking 'Afterlife' where humans get to stand in queues and turn into fragments of song, which will be familiar to anyone whose ever stood in a jobcentre queue; 'ReWrite' which has the narrator deciding he doesn't like how life turned out so would rather write himself a new happier ending; 'Love and Hard Times' where God actually comes to Earth but vanishes again ('Creation Is Never Done') leaving a breathless Paul able to gasp 'thank God I found you in time' to his wife before everyone dies; the sudden explosions of 'Love Is Eternal Sacred Light' (which despite the title is about sudden, unprepared death from an apparent 'bomb in the marketplace') and which compares man's smaller explosions with a vengeful God; 'Questions For The Angels' asks rhetorical questions that Paul wants answered but senses he will only learn, maybe, after he's gone: would the animal kingdom notice if the human world vanishes one day? Why do such horrors as poverty and homelessness exist? And, erm, should you get your money back if a product turns out to be not what you expected?! (Something you might want to try with 'The Capeman' sometime...); 'Love and Blessings' is all one long memory, with disconnected bits of old forgotten songs jumbled up with memories of a gentler, more innocent world; there's also the final, title track that ponders aloud whether life is fate or random chance and whether we can ever have the happy ending we long for in either world. The only song that lives in the present is the joyous 'Dazzling Blue', the first Paul Simon love song without a sting in the tail since 'Something So Right' a whole quarter century ago.

Like ‘Surprise’, is set to become a fan favourite, pulling few commercial punches but with an emotional clout that will resonate with everyone whose ever wanted something deeper from their music. I'm surprised that it hasn't done better amongst the Paul Simon cognoscenti who may find this album far more to their tastes than the experiments of 'The Capeman' and 'Surprise', with subject matters so much more in keeping with our original image of Paul in 'The Sound Of Silence' or 'I Am A Rock' mode, thoughtful, vulnerable and stoic with less of the 'world music' vibes of 'Graceland' onwards. Actually that's probably deliberate: fancying a change of working methods, this is considered to be the first album Paul has written as a bunch of songs first and recordings second since 'Hearts and Bones' in 1983, rather than getting a bunch of cooking rhythms together first and then making songs out of that (although 2000's 'You're The One' sounds as if much of it was made this way to me). You can kind of hear that: many of these songs are more lyric-driven than anything we've had in a while and many of them go back to having actual choruses and verse. That said, 'Beautiful' is still impressively free-form at times, even more of an impressionist painting than 'Surprise' as it bounces from one extreme to another across a single track or makes room for a sudden cameo by sampled preachers, accordion solos or God himself.

 I’m puzzled, though, that Paul hasn’t kept his band or his production team from his last record, as part of ‘Surprises’, erm, surprises were Brian Eno’s epic backgrounds (credited as ‘sonic landscapes’ on the sleeve) and the tight interplay between band members (including long time Paul Simon buddies Steve Gadd and Paolo Paladini). ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ has songs that are every bit ‘Surprises’ equal but, as a record, it fails to have the same sense of space and adventure, sounding like just another collection of promising Paul Simon songs rather than a thrilling record like that one was (until the schmuck of ‘Father and Daughter’ on the last track, anyway). Reviewers have been going head over heels for this album recently, even if it hasn't done too well in the charts – together with the McCartney II re-issue we reviewed last week everyone suddenly seems to love this record after 25 years of automatically harsh reviews deserved or not;  its as if the musical world’s gone mad - have there been no other even half-decent records to get excited about this year? You see, even as a huge Paul Simon album I’m quite disappointed with this album, with the melodies and accompaniments offering few surprises, even if the words are the strongest Paul has written in two decades. Considering that the album delves into such deep issues as God coming back to Earth to see how humans are getting on, a writer pouring his efforts into his art to compensate for a messed up home life and whether to believe in God’s messenger angels on earth, this isn’t half a rushed and hurried sounding album. Perhaps the record company wanted this album quicker than expected or perhaps there were other delays (it was a fight, apparently, to get lead single ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day’ ready for, well, Christmas day last year) but I can’t help feeling that these songs haven’t been given a chance to soak into their new arrangements yet. The whole album is also woefully short for the CD age – at 37 minutes barely outlasting the old Simon and Garfunkel LPs of the 1960s.

Not that ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ is a bad record. Indeed, there are three songs on it that are right up there with Paul’s best, lovely eccentric songs that have a whole new twist on the way we view the world. Even the other seven songs have their plus points, all being thoughtful to varying degrees and more ambitious than most songs written by artists a quarter of Paul’s age. Best of all, this is the happiest we’ve heard Paul for a while, with a couple of strong love songs to new wife Edie Brickell – still Paul’s girlfriend when the last album was being made – and even though it’s hard to find a new twist on a love song, ‘Dazzling Blue’ manages it beautifully. But perhaps that’s the problem – Paul sounds so contented at times here that, barring the ever present worry of old age and death – this is quite a cosy album from a performer whose seen his career go up and down so many times that he doesn’t really care how the album does anymore. As a result there’s a harsh, confused sound spread right across this album where the sounds get so jumbled up that at times it’s hard to listen too, with too many sudden switches and jarring moodswings for casual fans to grasp. I also kept hearing in previews for this album that Paul had gone back to the acoustic guitar for the first time in decades – something us Paul Simon fans have been dying to hear all that time – and yet Paul’s acoustic guitar is hardly central to this album. Instead there’s an awfully clunky metallic sound running all the way through, with Paul’s under-rated playing only really showing its true finesse and sensitivity on short instrumental ‘amulet’.

If this album is to last the test of time and join the pantheon of great Paul Simon albums known and unknown (I still rate ‘One Trick Pony’ ‘Hearts and Bones’ and ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ as his best solo work) then it will be for this album’s lyrics. There’s a theme of ‘getting ready’ for something across this album, getting your plans for the future in order before time comes and steals you away before your time, with things beyond mortal control. So often across this album there’s the spectre of death hanging over you, from the opening ‘sermon’ by Reverend J M Gates to the closing track’s desperate attempts to get the narrator’s children (and maybe the listeners) to live the life they want to while they still can.   Perhaps Paul Simon has been listening to the 2012 Mayan prophecies, or perhaps he’s just suddenly realised his age. Either way, there’s rarely been an album where ghosts hang as heavy as this one, with two songs about very different afterlifes (one full of bureaucracy, one full of surrealism; both, interestingly, are full of music), a song about believing in God’s angels as messengers and another about God’s unfinished business on Earth. As personal as this album is – there are two songs where Paul is thankful for his newly found happiness and is so pleased ‘I found you in time – the album is also painted universally, the strand of DNA on this album’s cover implying these questions will be faces by all of us sooner or later. Paul’s ultimate message, though, is one he’s been giving us for years, the idea that life is as happy or as unhappy as we humans make it, born to mistakes but also born to glory, able to make ourselves useful or useless and that, in the end, all that matters is how other people saw you and how you treated them, a life that could be so beautiful – or so what? 

Many reviewers have picked up on Paul McCartney’s recent comments when visiting Paul Simon and hearing his recent batch of songs (why so many songs about God? I thought you were Jewish!) But this album isn’t really about religion as much as spirituality. Like Cat Stevens prior to his Muslim conversion of 1978, this is a songwriter thinking out loud about what his spiritual choices are and considering them in turn. Although raised in the Jewish faith Paul has only written one song about his ‘faith’ his whole career (the under-rated ‘Silent Eyes’ from ‘Still Crazy After All these Years’) and interestingly even that’s written in the third person. By and large Paul has painted himself as an unbeliever, an agnostic rather than an atheist who has kept his options open. We still don’t know what Paul truly thinks – and I don’t think he does either having heard this album – and despite the fact that God even speaks on this album at one point only on one track is he, briefly, referred to as a ‘God’. Elsewhere on the album our ‘maker’ is just a mysterious ever-present voice, one treated both in jest and with true seriousness depending on the mood of the song.

In his ebullient sleevenotes Elvis Costello talks about the other secondary theme of this record which is common to most writers but not particularly Paul’s work: that of love. Three of the songs have that word in the title, whereas few really of Paul’s songs have until now,  as if Paul is only now, in his 69th year, understanding what the word really means. There’s love from children, love from God, love from loved ones, all of it complicated and none of it coming without some cost or  catch or effort. But love is possible in this world – unlike the painfully spiky album of betrayal ‘You’re The One’ or the bittersweet accidental meeting with ex-lovers that was ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. Paul sounds as if he’ come to terms with the cyclical nature of life here and more than once tells his listeners ‘thank God I found out in time’.

Fans who comes to Paul’s work only knowing ‘Graceland’ or ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ may be disappointed there is no real rhythmical work here (although one of the songs does sound a bit like ‘You Can Call Me Al’). Nearly all of these songs sound as if the lyric was worked on first and the lyric booklet and promotional work have made big value of the fact that this is the first time Paul hasn’t constructed songs to an already existing backing track since the early 80s. But for me that’s a shame: say what you will about the lack of variety, the thematic unity of ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ and even the oddball stage musical ‘Capeman’ makes the tracks involved sound as if they belong together, with the lyrics still integral to the songs. Few other writers even consider working on the recordings before they know what a song is about and yet, from 1986 onwards, that’s what Paul Simon has done best, getting to know the ‘vibe’ and soul of a group of instruments playing a certain riff in a certain tempo and working out what the result sounds like. All too often across this album, the backings don’t suit the sound, perhaps because Paul has forgotten how to work that way or because the melodies on this album just aren’t as strong as before, without any real rhythmical hook to hold it place, whether African, Brazilian or a hybrid as on the last two albums. Far from being the return to the confessional 1970s songwriter style critics have led us to believe, however, ‘So Beautiful’ sounds like an uneasy attempt to replicate an old sound without any clear direction.

There is one sound that crops up occasionally, though, both in rhythm, instrumentation and lyric. Most surprisingly of all, Paul’s gone back to his roots in the 1950s here, digging out the sort of music and style that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an old ‘Tom and Jerry’ or ‘Jerry Landis’ record. It’s fitting, then, that the narrator of ‘Afterlife’, finding his earthly identity rushing away from him, can only hum a snatch of an old rock and roll song, as if Paul’s identity is so closely linked to the music that first inspired him that it’s what he’ll be singing when the day to meet his maker arises. The use of some spiky electric guitar adds to the effect, as if this album was first started by a teenage Paul in 1955 and only now some 55 years later has been overdubbed with the viewpoint of somebody older and wiser but still very much connected to his younger self. Occasionally that backfires – there’s an unwanted return for ‘Fat Charlie the Archangel’ on ‘Love and Blessings’ and a pointless doo wop chorus that has nothing to do with the rest of the song, like the worst parts of Graceland resorted to and opener 'Getting Ready For Christmas Day' is another nice idea combining old and new that sadly really doesn't work. But sometimes this album's experiments work and work well: ‘Afterlife’ might not be the best song Paul has ever written but the idea of getting musically back to your roots is a good fit for a song about wanting to start over from past mistakes and the idea of angels who love early rock and roll is probably the most memorable image listeners will take away from the album; both the title track and 'Love Is Eternal Sacred Light' are tough rock and rollers despite containing some of the deepest philosophical nuggets Paul has yet written; finally 'Dazzling Blue' shimmers and shines and makes our very own planet sound like Heaven on Earth when seen in the right way. Caught between inspiration and frustration, this is perhaps one of Paul's more inconsistent albums recently, maybe a shade less brilliant than either of his more under-rated albums 'You're The One' and 'Surprise' (if a lot more, erm...musical than 'The Capeman'). Half of it is so beautiful...and half of it is 'so what?' 

The microcosm of the album is opening track and first single ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day’. There’s a good song in here somewhere, about a man struggling for money determined to make Christmas Day happy, using this as a wider metaphor for making your life and people in it happy and successful despite not having much to work on. Indeed, this song should have been called ‘Getting Ready For Judgement Day’ because its at one with other Christian songs of warning (of which The Hollies’ ‘Very Last Day’ from 1965 is the best AAA example). Alas, the decision to use a genuine sermon from Reverend Gates in 1941 is not a good one, even if his sermon – which uses the same title as the song – was Paul’s starting point and inspiration for the song. Just when the music gets going it has to break away in order for the sermon to start up again and even then the original 78 rpm record is ducked too low in the mix to make any real impact (it also sounds to me as if its been sped up slightly to get it to fit the metre of the song and if so than that’s a disaster, robbing Rev gates’ announcements of their true weight and power). When taken with a surprisingly contemporary arrangement, full of crashing synths and electronic percussion, it sounds like nothing short of Paul Simon’s first ever rap record, albeit with speech from an impassioned preacher whose been dead 60 years rather than a hungry discontented youth. Even the tune is ordinary by Paul Simon standards, with the same basic lick repeated throughout and a sing-songy verse-chorus structure with no middle eight or instrumental to alleviate the song’s plodding progress. That’s a shame because, as is so often the case on this album, the lyric are strong, taking in both the narrator’s struggles and his upbeat nature. There’s an especially strong second verse about a ‘nephew in Iraq’ which makes perfect sense – the sermon are, clearly, preparing for World War II just as much as judgement day which for Americans was only a year away, but here in 2011 Iraq is our equivalent. There’s also a sweet final verse where Paul’s narrator, regretfully, looks back on his own childhood and wishes he could tell his dead parents that their lack of money every Christmas didn’t mean that he enjoyed the festive season any less. It’s a lovely moment in what might have been a wonderful song, with the generational ups and downs over the years (as represented by the church service and mentions of Iraq) set against his personal story arc. But, ultimately, those synths, that melody and over-use of Rev Gates’ sermon makes an extraordinary song sound ordinary. It makes for a curious choice for a single, too, as it’s probably the least catchy song here.

‘The Afterlife’ is much better in my opinion, a typically quirky song about death from a songwriter who specialises in making the mundane seem wonderful and the amazing seem commonplace. ‘The Afterlife’ is a song after my own heart, a song where the glories and splendour of the next world are reduced to a very English queuing system and a load of forms to fill in. This time around there’s a fine snappy tune to keep the listener involved and an involved backing involving a ‘slide baritone guitar’ whatever that might be and what sounds like an accordion (although it’s not credited in the booklet). Paul’s vocal is delicious, halfway between awe and disappointment as the narrator finds that, after a lifetime of wondering what happens next, he still has a to wait a little longer to find out. There’s a cheeky verse that has even religious icons like Moses and Buddha waiting in line to meet the almighty (‘Moses’ makes for a cute rhyme with ‘noses’ by the way!) until a voice from above ‘suger-coated with love’ tells them they can start. There’s genuine awe that sounds biblical in its devotion too, however: I love the verse about how, after practising what he will say for his whole life and various albums, Paul’s narrator finds that meeting his maker ‘face to face in the vastness of space, your words disappear’. Suddenly none of his earthly experiences can quite prepare him for the experience and all he can half-remember is a ‘snatch of a song’. The most important thing Paul can remember is the Gene Vincent’s orgasmic rock and roll cry ‘be-bop-a-loo-lah’ with mention too of the r and b hit ‘Ooh Papa Doo’. A funny yet heartfelt song about what might happen when we die, this is Paul at his storytelling best, with a scenario all too believable and events so well imagined they’re easily imaginable that also doubles as a devotional hymn to music. Personally, I like the ‘Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’ definition of what the afterlife will involve – the knowledge that our existence is accidental and a mountain range made up into the words ‘sorry for the inconvenience!’

My other favourite song on the album is ‘Dazzling Blue’, a love song of such honesty and beauty that it ranks alongside ‘Something So Right’ as Paul’s best song about love. A hymn to new wife Edie the song starts with Stephen Stills’ old line about whether love is ‘an accident of faith’ or something that’s meant to be. After wondering out loud for several lines Paul ends with a utopian vision of what the couple’s life is like in the present (when, in a beautiful line, ‘the future came to be’, with Paul’s longed for companion by his side at last). Back in 1965 Paul half jokingly wrote ‘I Am A Rock’, his most paranoid/self-conscious song about how the narrator needs nobody in his life because other people bring him pain – even though underlying the song is the sense that he wants nothing more than someone to love unconditionally. Well, here that person is, and the ‘wall’ (a common symbol in Simon and Garfunkel songs, used by the discontented to write graffitied messages of desperation or to keep ‘peculiar men’ away from prying neighbours who don’t understand them) is now one melded together from the couple’s love, so strong that ‘nothing can break through’. The melody, too, is the only one on this album equal to its lyrics, sweeping across the song with confidence that the chord changes will catch it when it falls and a tune caught halfway between modesty and joy. This is also, not coincidentally, the song on the album that most sounds like you’d expect, with African fiddles, a dobro and some of Paul’s distinctive rhythmically-charged guitar work. There’s a twist, however, thanks to the presence of an Indian choir and a table player, making the song sound more like a summer of love anthem and I for one would love to hear Paul carry on his journey round the world’s world music with an ‘Indian’ album to join his ‘African’ and ‘Brazilian’ ones as he really has a feel for it here. All together a gorgeous song that’s the highlight of the album and the best Paul has written since the ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ period.

Thereafter the album falls down somewhat but, unlike most reviews I’ve read, ‘ReWrite’ is another good song that simply doesn’t have a strong enough melody and arrangement to see it through. The idea is actually a clever one, as a whizz kid writer arrogantly tells us about what a great writer he’s going to be, in between working endless shifts at the local car wash. The song shifts greatly in the last verse when we hear that his endless desire to ‘rewrite’ isn’t referring to his work but to his life, with a character who walks out on his family after a ‘breakdown’ substituted for a heroic dad who saves his children from some unimaginable horror ‘after a race across the rooftops’. The facade we’ve heard across the rest of this track crumbles before our ears even though Paul never quite says what the writer is up to and we’re left to puzzle over whether the narrator is working hard merely to give him something to occupy his mind rather than because he enjoys what he does. So far so clever, but alas there’s an awfully clunky chorus of ‘Help me! Help me! Help me! Thankyou!’ that sounds as if it belongs in another song entirely and a quite boring arrangement that has the same short guitar lick repeated throughout. I ‘get’ the fact that the point of the song is that nothing is really changing and that no matter how hard the narrator tries he will always fail to ‘re-write’ his life until he does it in person, but unfortunately you have to pay such close attention to the song to work that out that most fans will have switched off before the moving last verse. There’s not much of a melody here again, either, with the song sung in short, clipped sentences, as if the narrator has buttoned all his feelings up close to his chest and won’t dare let them into the open air. The only bit that really pleases is the whistling, a cross between the whistling solo in ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ and ‘Whistle While You Work’, which sounds both sad and busy, the perfect summation of the troubled narrator who won’t admit he had troubles. The overall result is a curious, complex song that makes more sense when you understand it but makes for very heavy going.

‘Love and Hard Times’ is a huge, complex song that switches between more devotions of love to Paul’s new wife and the return of God to Earth. Many fans are talking about this song as the album highlight, what with the size of the subject matter and the neat metaphor that God can finally leave the narrator in peace now that he’s finally found the person ‘He’ made for him to be with. Alas, so key are the lyrics to his song that there’s hardly a tune at all, with a conversational style that slows to a crawl at times, with some neat acoustic guitar work from Paul reduced to flamenco flourishes by the end rather than a tune. There’s something inherently selfish about the idea of God only existing to look after one couple, but perhaps I’ve misunderstood the lyrics here – our ‘maker’ does say that if they leave and don’t interfere then people will still find love themselves as well as hard times. There is a sweet third verse where Paul’s narrator knows that falling in love at first sight is ‘an old songwriting cliche’ but also happens to be true and its lovely to hear the hesitant lover of ‘Something So Right’ where ‘Some folks never say I love you, it’s not their style so bold ‘turns into a chorus line of ‘love, love, love, love, love’. But ultimately this song bites off more than it can chew. The closing line ‘thank God I found you’ gives a link, of sorts, between the romance and religious aspects of the song, but ultimately this sounds like two separate pieces fused together, without a melody to secure the bond.

After three straight ballads the driving tempo of ‘Love Is Eternal, Sacred Light’ comes as a welcome change and its taught riff is an excellent starting point for what is probably the best group performance on the record. So far so good, but this is another of those songs on the album that bite off more than they can chew, so big is the premise of this song, summing up the history of mankind and a God who, this time, is hands-off in his job. There are some clever lyrics here about mankind’s sudden progression from an ‘animal’ to something more (‘Earth became a farm, farmer takes a wife’), but there’s simply so much happening in this song its hard to take it all in, especially when its being delivered at break neck speed. It also sounds as if Paul Simon has been paying close attention to the Godley and Creme album ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ (1988) which features the same driving beat, pounding drums, harmonicas and deep growly voiced deities talking in the middle eight (only Paul tries to cram into five minutes what took the 10cc duo 40 to say). God himself is even more puzzling than his other portrayals on this album – ‘Big bang, well that’s a joke I made up...most folks don’t get when I’m joking, well one day they will’ chuckles God, as if all of mankind’s suffering is an unfortunate side effect of lives created simply to make their maker life (like an overgrown Sims game where characters suffer for our amusement). Progress was not part of God’s plan and its not Paul’s idea either, witness this track’s lyrics about man ‘turning into machine’ because of the ‘oil’ that drips down his face, with modern society alienating people from their emotions. Somewhere along the way mankind got lost: the DJ on the radio has no interest in music and nobody likes him, but he’s there because he does what his executives tell him to; the same goes for talk show hosts and the pop singers who are all success because the people in charge want them to be. This disorganised society and alienation from others is what enables some to become ‘human bombs’ entering marketplaces to blow others up (Paul’s line ‘a bomb in the m-‘ is drowned out by a sudden cymbal wash in one of the most arresting moments of the album). As Paul sings at the end of the song, the sounds of silence that have been hovering around him since the early 60s is ‘evil’, a blackness that cuts off our relationships to each other. The end result is a puzzled world and an even more puzzled God, watching his creations interact and not quite understanding why humans do what they do. That’s a good starting point for song and there are good moments within it, but ultimately ‘Love Is Eternal, Sacred Light’ is just as confused and scattershot as its subject matter, with the listener having to dig deep into their lyric booklet to read between the words and work out what is going on.

The quiet serenity of instrumental ‘Amulet’ offers a welcome balm and the first chance to hear Paul’s acoustic unaccompanied by voices since a cover of ‘Anji’ way back in 1966. But, sweet as this little piece is, its ultimately quite inconsequential, with a series of chord changes that don’t really seem to follow on from each other and a melody that’s always being distracted, as if Paul is letting every idea he’s ever had run across the song one after the other. I loved the idea of Paul going back to his acoustic guitar, which he largely abandoned in 1975 when calcium deposits on his hands made it too uncomfortable for him to play. He hasn’t lost his skill either – some of the flourishes near the end sound like they are played by a flashy twenty-something rather than someone approaching his seventh decade, but ultimately his use of guitar on this album is disappointing, with Paul covering up his playing with other musicians and overdubs that he simply doesn’t need (even ‘Amulet’ gets an un-credited humming choir near the end).

This acoustic playing merges seamlessly with ‘Questions For The Angels’ but if anything this is even worse. Another epic taking in life and death, this is another lonely narrator expecting to die and wondering what his life is for. Asking why he still has faith, the narrator answers that despite everything that’s happened to him he still believes in angels and their ability to change his life for good. Like many a song on this album, we then get a detour, with a ‘pilgrim’ passing a billboard in America advertising rapper Jay-Z’s clothing line, as if an advert is the present day version of a sermon or religious service, a place where we congregate and seek advice about how to live our life. There’s also an excellent closing verse, where the narrator ponders out loud what a zebra would think if the human race suddenly disappeared one day – whether he would notice; whether he would care. For all the narrator’s beliefs, however, there’s a feeling on this track that God never existed – certainly he hasn’t visited the life of the homeless moving their boxes so they can get out of the way of the commuters or those who only have Jay-Z for company to show them how to live. The theme on this track is one of isolation, with a world of people that don’t help each other except from afar. There’s a lot going on in this song, a bit too much one has to say, and this piece more than any other needs a good melody to match the lyrics. But again all we get here is a bit of half-hearted strumming and a piece that’s spoken more than it’s sung with only the ‘fools do...’ chorus line really catching the ear. Yet again, this is a song built for reading like a poem rather than enjoying as a song.   

The weakest song, though, is probably ‘Love and Blessings’. We’ve commented already on how filled this album is with doo wop and 1950s style r and b, but here the style clashes with this album’s other musical theme of gospel music head on for a song that feels like two parts stuck recklessly together. This time God is plentiful, delivering ‘rain on thirsty land’ and making things good again – the setting for the ‘never had it so good’ 1950s of Paul’s childhood perhaps, with a chorus of ‘bop bop a whoa’. Charlie’s here again, the unspeaking character who crops up on a few of Paul Simon’s songs since ‘Graceland’ but yet again he doesn’t get to do much except be told ‘there ain’t no song like an old song’ – a sentiment that could almost be our website’s headline but here, in a song God working in unseen and mysterious ways, it just sounds wrong. Perhaps Paul is saying that God exists in music – an argument that makes as much sense as any – with followers finding ‘church’ ie strength, support and faith from what they listen to. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the music Paul’s chosen to accompany this song, though, with its rattled feedback guitar and sudden choirs of doo wop singers chanting ‘bop bop’ to what sounds like the worst immediate post-WW2 songs. There’s a good fade, though, that promises much and might have made for a better song, with God appearing in the narrator’s dreams ‘in a word or in an image’, waking him with ‘love and blessings and simple kindness’ that humans can experience but can never quite hold on to before life gets in the way again.

The album then ends with a final burst of ‘Graceland’ guitar on a riff that’s a close cousin of ‘The Boy In The Bubble’, Paul’s excellent update of ‘I Am A Rock’. This song finds Paul trying to weigh up everything he’s told us throughout the album and all his many portrayals of God and the afterlife and his answer, which could have been quite a confused one, becomes the title phrase ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ Man has the opportunity to make his life and those around him happy by doing great things – but then, if circumstances get to us and we can’t live up to our potential, that doesn’t matter either as long as we try, with live ‘beautiful’, but if not, so what? At least we learnt from it. This song is one of the better tracks on the album, with a guitar riff underlying a melody that really works and a lyric that takes in everything from the death of Martin Luther King to the narrator’s acceptance of himself as a ‘raindrop in the bucket’ of life. Best of all is the second verse, a close cousin of ‘St Judy’s Comet’ – Paul’s lullaby to his first son Harper – with Paul now reading bedtime stories to his younger children, making it up as he goes along and wondering whether, as a kind of ‘God’ of his own characters, he has the right to give them a happy ending (‘Maybe yes, maybe not’). There’s a great chorus when the angry riff that’s been driving the song forward fades out to leave Paul crooning ‘So Beautiful...’ over and over before the retro riff kicks back in. Anything can happen seems to be the message of this song, with its images of rolling dice and a game of ‘time and love’ as if Paul can’t decide which of his images of God are right or not. Did he find his wife by good fortune? Or by chance? Or did he learn most when he was alone and most miserable? Or when he felt protected and could do good work? After all, what kind of a world is it when great men like Dr King can die – and others who cause harm and hatred live? A fitting summation to the album and a good song in its own right, this makes for a cracking end to a disappointing album.

It’s hard to sum up an album that takes in everything from death to afterlife to angels to humans left suffering on Earth to the history of mankind. Indeed, most double albums couldn’t hope to pull off what Paul tries here in under 40 minutes and it’s no surprise that so much of it is confused or doesn’t quite work. What is confusing are the arrangements, with Paul left stranded on an uneasy hybrid of gospel and doo-wop for the most part that fail to get the most out of his excellent lyrics. Having said that, there are three really good pieces here that more than do justice to Paul’s great reputation and ‘Dazzling Blue’ in particular is becoming a real favourite of mine. If only the rest of the album had been up to that standard this record could have been so beautiful, but then Paul’s already given us so many beautiful albums, so if in the end it’s mildly disappointing so what? 


'The Paul Simon Songbook' (PS, 1965)

'Sounds Of Silence' (SG, 1966)

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (SG, 1970)

'Paul Simon' (PS, 1972)

'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' (PS, 1973)

'Angel Clare' (AG, 1973)

'Watermark' (AG, 1977)

‘Scissors Cut’ (AG, 1981)

'The Animals' Christmas' (AG, 1986)

'Songs From The Capeman' (PS, 1997)

'Stranger To Stranger' (PS, 2016)

Every Pre-Fame Recording 1957-1963 (Tom and Jerry, Jerry Landis, Artie Garr, True Taylor, The Mystics, Tico and The Triumphs, Paul Kane)

Live/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One: 1968-1988

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

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