So Good or So What is worth the listen by virtue of the fact that it demonstrates that, after decades of writing some of the most formative music of all time, Paul Simon still has something to say. We are all familiar with artists long past their prime coming out with boring new music, making albums that come off as more self-congratulatory than genuinely interesting. With reviews that I have written for albums like Robbie Robertson’s How to Become Clairvoyant and Peter Wolf’s Midnight Souvenirs, I do not believe these kinds of albums are necessarily all bad, but I will admit that they are mostly enjoyable within the context of themselves, which can often be enough to suspend one’s disbelief over the course of a long player.
This is not the case with Paul Simon, however. On his newest solo album since 2006’s Surprise, the man has a thirst for experimentation or at the very least variation, a quality you’d be surprised how many albums like this starve for. Simon expounds upon his beliefs on America’s two wars, the economy, love and faith. I can proudly say that there isn’t a song on So Beautiful or So What that looks backwards; Simon is well grounded in the present musical landscape and looks to the future of his children and music with vacillating degrees of hope. Still, it’s the fact that Simon looks that way so consistently that makes the album feel just right.
So Beautiful or So What begins in a way that would seem to contradict this sentiment. On “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”, Simon praises the preparation for the holidays, but does so by incorporating sampled voices and lazy guitar that suggest a contemporary approach akin to modern trends in hip hop and electronic music. Add in Simon’s topical lyrics (“I’ve got a nephew in Iraq / It’s his third time back / But it’s ending up the day it began / With the luck of a winner / He’ll be eating Turkey dinner / On some mountaintop in Pakistan”) and the track ultimately reserves itself a place in the quickly lengthening line of excellent Christmas songs that have been released in the past year.
Elsewhere, Simon observes a wry sense of humor to write some excellent musical poetry. Whether he’s positing a waiting line to Heaven in “The Afterlife” or embodying the failed musician still hopeful for a big break in “Rewrite”, Simon is funny, endearing and not so comfortable as to shy away from controversy. “Man becomes machine / Oil runs down his face/ Machine becomes a man / With a bomb in the marketplace,” the man sings on “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”, repeating that last line for chilling effect. I have never been an avid fan of Paul Simon’s work as a solo artist or with Simon & Garfunkel, but if you needed any primer for the genius behind some of greatest lyrics of all time, So Good or So What would not be a bad place to start.
And while there isn’t a style of Simon’s on the album that I don’t embrace with open arms, I find myself partial to So Good or So What’s most delicate numbers. “Love and Hard Times” is an episodic piano-led number that first imagines God and Jesus scoffing at the “slobs” man has become in the brief time they come down to visit, then speaks of reclaiming lost love as if it were contingent on the harmony of the universe. “I loved her the first time I saw her / I know that’s a songwriting cliché,” he sings, showing deference to lyricism to ears that would have easily forgiven him. “Questions for the Angels” similarly ponders the universe through the accounts of a homeless man wandering Downtown Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful song that glorifies the small scale so that the Jay-Z reference makes “Party in the USA” sound like the drunken uncle at a wedding. Of course Simon doesn’t intend for these lyrics to be profound; he is self-aware on the album almost to a fault. But if you’re like me, frustrated with the diminished returns of past artists coming back to tell us how kickass they were nearly half a century ago, it’s plenty transcendent just to hear a sixty-nine year old artist sit down and talk about life for a while.