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Paul Simon: Back In 'Graceland' With 'So Beautiful'

Paul Simon. (Concord Music Group)

Paul Simon will probably never again achieve the combination of artistic and mass-audience success that he did with Graceland in 1986. That album's blend of singer-songwriterly mannerliness and African adventurism was, at the time, novel, warm and welcoming.

Simon has characterized Graceland as rhythm-based, and continued to make solo albums in this style, in part because it was a way of acknowledging the emphasis on beats brought about by hip-hop without humiliating himself by trying to mimic mostly black musicians decades younger than himself. That was admirable, but it could only go on for so long.

Consequently, Simon has proclaimed So Beautiful or So What a return to singer-songwriter mode, with an emphasis on story-songs and his earnest, chalky vocals. Still, he's not about to give up a good rhythm when he comes up with one, as in the album's catchy opening tune, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day."

There's always been an aspect to Simon's talent that could be called the Assiduous English Major. His unremarkable thoughts about life and love, argued with impeccable meter, have long characterized his solo recordings, and they find a new self-consciousness in "Rewrite," a song which uses his labor over lyrics as a metaphor for rewriting one's life. This one is so immaculately crafted that it was printed as a poem in The New Yorker, where it worked as a kind of Billy Collins/Frank O'Hara-wannabe piece of verse. As music, it ambles along, trying and failing to disguise the truth that "rewriting one's life" is a cliche best left inside self-help books.

One element that jumps out at you as you listen to So Beautiful or So What is its unifying theme of spirituality. That's both an aesthetic choice — it's what he means when he says he wants people to listen to this project as an album, not just a collection of downloadable singles — and an odd, strategic one.

There was probably more spiritual nourishment in "Bridge Over Troubled Water" than in the whole of this album, but Simon uses the metaphor repeatedly: evoking God and Buddha in "The Afterlife"; having God and "his only son" pay "a courtesy call on Earth" in the piano-based, Randy Newman-ish "Love and Hard Times"; positing love as, in another song title, "Eternal Sacred Light." He even ponders, in yet another composition, "Questions for the Angels" — well, what is this?

Is it sincerity that dovetails with those in his generation who seek a contemplative life in current hard times? Or is it a convenient way to puff up his songs with an exalted importance when this crafty old pro knows that nonsense syllables like "Be-bop-a-lula" or "Bop-bop-a-whoa" can serve the same function?

Whatever the reason, Paul Simon has made an album that succeeds in blending the two best strands of his solo career: the articulate navel-gazing of his 1972 solo debut and Graceland's 25-year-old rhymin' Simon in rhythm. And only a few songs here could use the heavy hand of a rewrite.

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Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

For his new album "So Beautiful or So What," Paul Simon has put together 10 songs he said he hopes will reintroduce the album as an art form to a generation that now gets most of its music as single song downloads.

Rock critic Ken Tucker also hears a strong spiritual theme running through the album. Here's Ken's review.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light")

Mr. PAUL SIMON (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) Love is eternal, sacred light. Free from the shackles of time. Evil is darkness, sight without sight. A demon that feeds on the mind.

How'd it all begin? Started with a bang. Couple of light years later, stars and planets sang. Fire warmed the cold, waves of colors flew. Moonlight into gold, earth to green and blue.

Love is eternal...

KEN TUCKER: Paul Simon will probably never again achieve the combination of artistic and mass-audience success that he did with "Graceland" in 1986. That album's blend of singer-songwriter mannerliness and African adventurism was, at the time, novel, warm and welcoming.

Simon has characterized "Graceland" as rhythm-based, and he continued to make solo albums in this style, in part because it was a way of acknowledging the emphasis on beats brought about by hip-hop without humiliating himself by trying to mimic mostly black musicians decades younger than himself. That was admirable, but it could only go on for so long.

Thus, Simon has proclaimed "So Beautiful or So What" a return to singer-songwriter mode, with an emphasis on story-songs and his earnest, chalky vocals. Still, he's not about to give up a good rhythm when he comes up with one, as in the album's catchy opening tune, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day."

(Soundbite of song, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) From�early�in�November�to�the�last�week of�December I got�money�matters�weighing�me�down. Oh the music may be merry, but its only temporary, I know Santa Claus is coming to town.

In�the�days�I�work�my�day�job,�in�the�nights�I�work�my�night. But it all comes down to working mans pay. Getting ready, I'm getting ready, ready for Christmas Day. Getting ready. Yes, sir.

TUCKER: There's always been an aspect to Simon's talent that could be called the Assiduous English Major. His unremarkable thoughts about life and love, argued with impeccable meter, have long characterized his solo recordings, and they find a new self-consciousness in "Rewrite," a song that uses his labor over lyrics, tossing out first drafts as a metaphor for rewriting one's life. This one is so immaculately crafted it was printed as a poem in The New Yorker, where it worked as a kind of Billy Collins/Frank O'Hara-wannabe piece of verse. As music, it ambles along, trying and failing to disguise the truth that rewriting one's life is a cliche best left inside self-help books.

(Soundbite of song, "Rewrite")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) I'm been working on my rewrite, that's right. I'm gonna change the ending. Gonna throw away my title and toss it in the trash. Every minute after midnight, all the time I'm spending, is just for working on my rewrite, thats right. I'm gonna turn it into cash.

I been working at the car wash. I consider it my day job cause it's really not a pay job. But that's where I am. Everybody says the old guy working at the car wash. Hasn't got a brain cell left since Vietnam.

But I say help me, help me, help me...

TUCKER: One element that jumps out at you as you listen to this album is its unifying theme of spirituality. That's both an aesthetic choice -it's what he means when he says he wants people to listen to this project as an album, not just a collection of downloadable singles - and an odd, strategic one.

There was probably more spiritual nourishment in "Bridge Over Troubled Water" than in the whole of this album, but evoking God and Buddha in song called "The Afterlife"; having God and quote, "his only son" pay "a courtesy call on Earth" in the piano-based, Randy Newman-ish "Love and Hard Times"; positing love as, in another song title, "Eternal Sacred Light," and pondering in yet, another composition, "Questions for the Angels" - well, what is this?

Is it sincerity that dovetails with those in his generation who are seeking a contemplative life in current hard times? Or is it a convenient way to puff up his songs with an exalted importance when this crafty old pro knows that nonsense syllables like Be-bop-a-lula or Bop-bop-a-whoa can really serve the same function?

(Soundbite of song, "Love & Blessing")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) Love and blessing, simple kindness fell like rain on thirsty land. Fields and gardens, long abandoned came to life in dust and sand.

Lover's lips sweet as honey. Touched as if old love was new. Banker's pockets overflowing with gold and money. Prophesies of wealth come true.

Bop-bop-a-whoa...

TUCKER: Whatever the reason, Paul Simon has made an album that succeeds in blending the two best strands of his solo career: the articulate navel-gazing of his 1972 solo debut and "Graceland's" rhymin' Simon in rhythm. And only a few songs here could use the heavy hand of a rewrite.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. Paul Simons album "So Beautiful or So What" will be released April 12th. Until then, you can hear the full album streaming on the website nprmusic.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "So Beautiful or So What")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) I'm gonna make a chicken gumbo. Toss some sausage in the pot. I'm gonna flavor it with okra, Cheyenne pepper to make it hot. You know life is what we make of it. So beautiful or so what?

I'm gonna tell my kids a bedtime story, a play without a plot. Will it have a happy ending? Maybe yeah, Maybe not. I tell them life is what you make of it. So beautiful or so what?

So beautiful, so beautiful, so what.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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