Few pop music fans seem to realize that Paul Simon’s 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What, might very well be his best album ever. That’s right. I said it: best album ever. Seriously. Ever. But unfortunately, because it didn’t come out in 1977, and because its singles were up against the high school crap of LMFAO and Katy Perry that dominated the airwaves last year, the album went largely without notice (save for the ENTIRETY of the music critic community, who unanimously listed the album in their top ten album lists for that year). Hosting themes that reflect a man finding life “terribly strange” at seventy, So Beautiful asks questions for the angels about love, mortality, and God. And from listening to the brief album (under 40 minutes of music), one answer to these questions tap at the listener’s ear: love. Seriously, Mr. Simon? “Love?” Huh.
Simple, conventional, and persistent, Simon’s message is singular; he’s a real love-monger on this stunning album. In the tune, “Dazzling Blue,” he pays tender tribute to his marriage to (the remarkable!) Edie Brickell, and in the song, “Rewrite,” he paints a portrait of an American war veteran, who “hasn’t got a brain cell left since Vietnam,” pleading with God for a “rewrite” of his life since the war, “…Help me, help me, help me, help me – THANK YOU! I had no idea that you were there.” In the beleaguered veteran’s rewrite, love makes an appearance and ultimately redeems his life. The veteran outlines his do-over:
I'll eliminate the pages where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family, but he really meant no harm.
Gonna substitute a car chase and a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children, and he holds them in his arms…
The word “love” permeates the album, prominent in the songs titles or mentioned within the verses (or at least alluded to) on every song. On So Beautiful or So What, it’s all love, all the time. In the world Simon describes on So Beautiful, love is the mortar holding the bricks together, love is the foundation providing strength to the walls, love is the cement filling the empty holes as the musician reminds us to carefully consider our frame of reference: “Life is what you make of it,” he sings, it’s “so beautiful or so what?” I’ll take “beautiful,” thank you...
Death and growing older is another central theme on this exceptional album, and the topic is not a new one for Simon. In his mid 20’s, he reverently wrote about the prospect of growing older. In fact, Simon loosely dedicated an entire side of vinyl (side one) of the classic 1968 Simon and Garfunkel album, Bookends, to the cycle of life, most notably in the sweetly morose, “Old Friends,” in which his vocal muse and “frenemy,” Art Garfunkel sang, “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench, quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy…” and on the side one closer, “Bookends Theme,”
Time it was, and what a time it was;
A time of innocence, a time of confidences;
Long ago, it must be…I have a photograph;
Preserve your memories;
They're all that's left you…
Musings from a young and gifted musician, romanticizing the inevitability of growing older (and exquisitely so). Are such solemn romanticisms fleeting naivety? Are they the privilege of youth? I’m starting to suspect so, as more recently, seventy year-old Simon writes of mutability from a much more dispassionate and droll, albeit musical perspective, sometimes chuckling about the prospect of passing from this mortal coil, and sometimes taking on the voice of God, Himself, pontificating on the state of humanity, on ugly politics and talk-show hosts, on the sad state of popular music, and on the origin of life, itself. Simon sings “as God,”
Big Bang. That’s a joke that I made up once
When I had eons to kill,
You know, most folks, they don’t get when I’m joking;
Maybe someday they will…
And then, of course, there’s Music. Perhaps the world’s biggest music fan, Simon has said that he picked up a guitar for the first time, because he wanted to be Elvis. And following suit, Simon almost always includes musical imagery in his more recent deliberations on nostalgia, death and the afterlife (to wit, in the early 1980’s, Simon referenced everyone from John Lennon to the “Late-Great Johnny Ace,” as well as his evocation of the treasured do-wop groups of his youth, and he also recalled Buddy Holly in the early 2000’s, and on this album, he echoed early rock-and-roll nonsense lyrics on “The Afterlife”). Simon has contemplated mutability throughout his career, but since his 40s, Simon has replaced the sentimental heartache of his youthful ruminations with humor, irony, and derision.
I suspect there’s much to be learned from this philosophical approach, and I’ve been listening to Simon’s So Beautiful or So What almost non-stop for the past few weeks. I find it wholly comforting and relevant, especially as I've recently learned a beloved family member is facing his last months, and by all accounts, he’s addressing the prospect with characteristic humor, grace, and boldness – similar to Simon’s most recent reflections. It’s humbling, his courage. I wish I had it. Maybe it comes with one’s built-in character or personality; maybe some are just born heroic, or maybe it comes from years of hard-won wisdom. Either way, at 41, I don’t have it yet. I wonder if I ever will…