By Mike Greenblatt
"So Beautiful Or So What"
With liner notes by Elvis Costello and harmony by wife Edie Brickell, So Beautiful Or So What, by arguably America’s greatest living composer, starts with “Getting Ready For Christmas Day,” alternating versus with a 1930s sermon sample from Rev. J.M. Gates. It’s Paul Simon’s first new studio album since 2006’s disappointing Surprise and it’s one bigtime success.
“The Afterlife” not only tells us light-heartedly what happens after we die, but is rhythmic, jaunty and percussive, a total delight. We’re in India for the gorgeous “Dazzling Blue” as this poem is set sparkling by an ensemble of “vocal syllables of percussion,” tabla and clay pot, underscored by fiddle, guitar and glockenspiel.
As song after song unfurls, each poem is couched within delightful soundscapes that accentuate the words, words of charming universality, humor and pathos, sung in his warm, easy-going, every-man laconic manner, like an old friend. But this old friend also plays some intricately complex and beautiful guitar (spotlighted on the 1:37 instrumental “Amulet.”)
“Love is eternal sacred light/Free from the shackles of time/Evil is darkness, sight without sight/A demon that feeds on the mind,” sings Simon in a song with a beat that you can diddley-bop to (”Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”).
“Questions For The Angels” is cinematic in scope, and would’ve fit fine in The Capeman, Simon’s severely under-appreciated Broadway musical (and one of his best albums).
Dr. Michael White’s swingin’ clarinet spices up “Love And Blessings,” another rhythmic joy, before the title track fittingly closes out this compact 38:09 of pure genius.