Tuesday, June 14, 2011

So Beautiful Or So What: Paul Simon's easy-uneasy listening album

A few years ago, I suggested to Evan Dando that one of his songs was reminiscent of Paul Simon. The remark was a compliment, but the Lemonhead almost spat in response, saying something to the effect that Paul Simon was easy listening, while he was punk rock. 
It’s true to say that Paul Simon’s huge contribution to pop hasn’t always been acknowledged. Yet, as a songwriter,Simon is as significant as any of The Beatles, a point which becomes more obvious as pop revisits its folk roots. Listen to Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, and what you hear is a sweet echo of Simon and Garfunkel; an acerbic emotion gently expressed, a certain wistfulness, and a sense that the singer is aware that his complaints may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things. 
Of course, Simon himself has travelled a long way from that. Since introducing Afro-Beat to mainstream pop with Graceland, his career since has shown admirable restlessness. For his last album, Surprise, he did what artists in need of external stimulation do, enlisting Brian Eno. In truth, it didn’t work. Surprise sounded like a fight between the instincts of the two opinionated men.
Oddly, Simon’s inspiration for So Beautiful or So What comes from one Surprise’s failures. ‘Everything About It Is A Love Song’ was a skittish collage in the style of David Gray, but the technician in Simon appreciated the song’s melodic shifts. More significantly, for the new album he decided to change his working methods. He stopped building songs from rhythms, and returned to writing with a guitar on his knee. Producer Phil Ramone, who worked on most of Simon’s good records, starting with ‘Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard’, was enlisted.
Clearly, the chemistry still works. From the opening ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day’ to the valedictory title track, this sounds like classic Paul Simon. The voice is upfront, the melodies adhesive, and there’s a real sense that the singer’s writing has clicked into focus. Some of Surprise was soft to the point of being slushy. Here, he’s telling stories, throwing narrative shapes, and twisting his songs into the service of a bigger idea. Almost every song is preoccupied somehow by God. 
Not that he’s preaching.  You’d be hard-pressed to ascertain where Simon stands on the matter of religion by listening to ‘Questions For The Angels’, in which a lonely pilgrim confronts a Jay Z billboard by the Brooklyn Bridge. “Who believes in angels?” Simon sings, “fools do”. On ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light’ – a blues guitar, a battered tambourine, and a sample of Sonny Terry’s harmonica – he muses on the nature of evil, even assuming the voice of God, before the song turns to joy as the narrator tunes into gospel radio. And in ‘The Afterlife’ – a Bo Diddley/Buddy Hollly shuffle – a dead man finds himself queuing for admission to heaven, only to be struck almost dumb on coming face-to-face with God: “All that remains is a fragment of song – Be-bop a-lula…” 
A joke on a lifetime spent in the service of rock’n’roll? Maybe. But Simon’s contribution to the form is his ability to engage emotion and intellect without making the effort obvious. He’s a reporter on the human condition, a soul singer employing the manners of pop. And the beauty of So Beautiful is the way its complexities are made to seem simple: the electronic drum parts contributed by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Bear, the Southern harmonies of bluegrass veterans Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, all of it blends into the whole, adding grit, but not friction, to Simon’s slippery melodies. 
Mostly, what you get is that voice, effortlessly sunny, conversational, and questioning. The gospel according to Paul is a contradiction – it’s balm, but it leaves an itch. Consider the closing song, ‘So Beautiful or So What’. It begins with the singer making dinner. He then tells his kids a bedtime story.  And the song ends, quite shockingly, with the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Easy listening, yes. But uneasy too, if you care to listen.