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Paul Simon
So Beautiful Or So What Alfred Soto , June 21st, 2011 14:28

Paul Simon remembers enough about being Paul Simon to bait a song called 'The Afterlife' with the hook, "You have to fill out a form first." We expect Simon to write a song about heaven that includes a punchline as wry as any smart New Yorker. So Beautiful or So What, his first album since 2006's Surprise, boasts many such moments of deadpan clarity, most of which are baited with equally fetching hooks that glisten with several decades' worth of Afrobeat knowledge and streetwise observation, for better or worse.

Because So Beautiful or So What is a Paul Simon record, disbelieve the promotional material: far from abjuring his much-publicized tendency to write "rhythm first," these largely acoustic ditties rely upon a compensatory melodic herky-jerkiness, as if XTC had attempted Apple Venus in 1984. But if the attention to rhythm is now indisguishable from melodic sumptuousness, credit an imagination whose search for worthwhile subjects demands a setting commensurate with its ingenuity. 'Dazzling Blue', anchored by tabla, is as gorgeous as anything in the deep Simon songbook. Longtime collaborator Vincent Nguini picks a Youssou N'Dour-worthy riff around which Simon and a chorus of female harmonies celebrate a love as simple as white linen, as endless as the Montauk Highway. When said imagination fails him, however, he retreats into kitsch iconography. Of course a literate man new to seventy would wonder about the afterlife, but to anchor songs in imagery as rote as angels and Christmas Day is a concession to fans who thought no artist can glean wisdom from hanging out in the cinematographer's party commemorated in Graceland's 'I Know What I Know'. At whatever age a flâneur stumbles into interesting songs more often than a mere worshipper of beauty.

That's how it goes. Other than Simon's weaker vocals - he's tremulous and gravelly in places - So Beautiful or So What won't disappoint, and isn't much worse than Surprise now that enough time has passed to allow more reasonable analysis. At least Surprise didn't rely on dangling conversations about class. He doesn't invest the car wash employee with dreams of car chases across rooftops of 'Rewrite' with any particular empathy or interest. The problem, again, is Simon's staccato singing of key verses; the undeveloped melody lines sound read from a moleskin notebook, an exercise that a self-satisfied songwriter well into the autumnal phase of his career might impose on himself. It's closer to unconvincing than to condescending; it's like listening to NPR for partisan suasion.

It hurts to award a middling review to an album with insights and textures as shrewd as So Beautiful or So What's. Thanks to Starbucks' expert promotion and the incessant web chatter about Vampire Weekend's indebtedness to him, Simon can crow about his first commercial coup since 1990. But Graceland, released after his worst selling album to date, the rueful Hearts and Bones, surprised everyone by becoming a touchstone too. So Beautiful or So What's modest, tuneful ruminations aren't at that level, but it doesn't sully Simon's legacy. For an encore: an entire album's worth of Simon's finger-picked guitar. That would be beautiful instead of so what.