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June 11, 2011 12:17 am

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What

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Paul Simon

So Beautiful or So What

(Hear Music)

Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland is a key influence on today’s bands: Vampire Weekend would be lost without it. However Simon, who turns 70 later this year, has himself suffered a lean patch in the 2000s, releasing a pair of low-key solo albums that were overshadowed by his reunion tours with Art Garfunkel.

So Beautiful or So What – the title sounds like a challenge to himself – therefore represents a renaissance of sorts. Its songs are imaginative and gripping, full of sensually flickering guitar, flowing rhythms and deft changes in direction. Simon’s vocals are youthful-sounding and delivered with great lightness of touch, as with “The Afterlife”, a deceptively easy-going meditation on death that slips by to a sweet shuffling beat and twanging guitar licks.

The album reaches for big themes (God, the meaning of life, politics); it occasionally overreaches. “You know,” Simon sings on the title track, in the manner of a man about to impart a devastating piece of wisdom, “life is what we make of it.” But there’s nothing banal about the music, from “Dazzling Blue”’s Graceland-style worldbeat to “Love & Blessings”’s stunning four-minute tour of folk, blues and New Orleans jazz, complete with Simon doing a call and response routine with a sampled 1930s gospel quartet.

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