Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of music. My parents had a small record collection that leaned heavily towards holiday albums, classical music, and what could charitably be called “inoffensive folk.” While I never took to Bread and I appreciated Peter, Paul, and Mary more for what I innocently thought was a song about actual dragons, the album I couldn't stop playing wasBridge Over Troubled Water (I had a lot more success singing along - especially with Garfunkel’s parts - before puberty took its toll on my vocal cords). Add to that the fact that Graceland was one of the only cassettes that my mom kept in the car during the late 1980s and its fair to say that Paul Simon composed a fair portion of the soundtrack of my childhood.
So, it was with that developmental baggage in tow that I dropped the figurative needle on Paul Simon’s new album, So Beautiful or So What. I guess the nicest thing that I can say about the album is that it definitely sounds like a Paul Simon album. Simon is a meticulous musical craftsman and, even though age seems to have diminished some of his more experimental tendencies, he makes up for it by executing his compositions with characteristic precision and skill. The end result is a series of enjoyable melodies that are largely pleasing to the old earholes...that is, so long as you ignore the lyrics.
Paul Simon used to be a poet. He said things in a way that was sometimes elliptical, sometimes direct, but always evocative and, even his lesser efforts felt like they came from a true effort to tell a story or describe an emotion in a new way. In contrast, the Paul Simon of So Beautiful comes off as a genial, laconic family man setting down easy observations about his comfortable life as he enters his golden years. It’s as if he kept his sound but lost his voice.
I honestly can’t imagine a classic Paul Simon album with a single song that falls to depths of the tortuous “Heaven’s waiting room” analogy of Afterlife, the cringe inducing storysong of Getting Ready for Christmas Day, or any of the triptych of Love songs (Love and Hard Times, Love is Eternal Sacred Light, and Love and Blessings); much less having all of them on the same disc. Oddly, the only song that really captures some of the old Simon magic is title track which, uncharacteristically doubles as the album’s closing track. But it is a slim payoff for the nine track slog that precedes it.
And herein lies my difficulty in properly analyzing this album. I realize that I am probably being harder onSo Beautiful than someone without my personal connection to Simon’s music would be but I suppose that is an unavoidable aspect of criticism. This album will not convert any skeptics and I doubt it will win Simon any new fans but he has plenty of those already. However, I’m also certain that many of his fans will actually enjoy So Beautiful, largely because it makes some vaguely Paul Simon-ish noises. Sometimes that’s all we really need from our favorite artists - a fresh shot of the old familiar sound to remind to remind us why we fell in love with them in the first place. To them I say, enjoy (who am I to blow against the wind?).
I was just hoping for more.