Paul Simon: Old Sounds, New Perspectives

Apr 11, 2011
Originally published on April 11, 2011 7:09 pm

For a while now, Paul Simon has been shuffling and reshuffling the basic ingredients of his 1986 masterwork Graceland, trying new combinations of exotic, often African rhythms with elements of American blues and roots music. It's a rich area that has led him to some amazing songs, and also some retreads.

Simon's newest album, So Beautiful or So What, opens with "Waiting for Christmas Day," a track that turned out to be my least favorite. Listening to the song, I couldn't help feeling the long shadow of Graceland. I wondered whether Simon was revisiting that sound intentionally, in the veteran songwriter's equivalent of sampling. Or maybe his needle's just stuck. I skipped ahead a few tracks and heard a wry portrait of a waiting room in the afterlife.

When you stop and think about how many songs Paul Simon has written, you realize what a peculiar challenge it must be for him to avoid repeating, even in a glancing way, the things he's done before. There's a place in one new song where he rhymes "station" with "destination," just as he does on his wistful classic "Homeward Bound." But here's the thing: With Paul Simon, sometimes what starts out sounding like an echo becomes something else entirely.

Take "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light," for example. Musically, it sounds like the stuff Simon was doing around the time of Graceland: a deceptively simple little mantra that bubbles happily along. Listen to the words, though, and you discover the musings of a slightly cranky older man who has seen and heard a lot in his lifetime. He's using sounds that worked in the past to frame new observations about honor, love and the meaning of beauty in a culture where just about everything is disposable.

On his last album, Surprise, Simon went to some lengths to shake the Graceland template. He dabbled in electronics and brought in the visionary Brian Eno to produce some tracks; it seemed he was trying to create a new context for his observations. Not this time — he's reunited with producer Phil Ramone, who handled Simon's 1975 hit "Still Crazy After All These Years." That throws the emphasis on his lyrics, which are sharp and in spots almost caustic.

Maybe these familiar echoes, ghosts of past glories, are inevitable. Maybe, as happens to so many elder statesmen of pop, Simon's best work is in the past. Here's all I know: Whenever my attention drifted while listening to this mixed bag of a record, along would come a stark insight, delivered in a tone of cool ambivalence — the audio equivalent of a tug on the sleeve. That's what is so interesting about this album. It's all "Meh," "So what?" and "Heard that one before." Until, quite suddenly, it's so beautiful.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon is back with his first new album in five years. It's called "So Beautiful or So What." And critic Tom Moon says that title offers a hint about what to expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GETTING READY FOR CHRISTMAS DAY")

TOM MOON: Here's how his new collection opens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GETTING READY FOR CHRISTMAS DAY")

BLOCK: (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 it's only temporary. I know Santa Claus is coming to town.

MOON: Listening to this song, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," which turned out to be my least favorite, I couldn't help feeling the long shadow of "Graceland." I wondered whether Paul Simon was revisiting that sound intentionally, in the veteran songwriter's equivalent of sampling. Or maybe his needles just stuck. I skipped ahead a few tracks, and heard this wry portrait of a waiting room in the "Afterlife."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTERLIFE")

BLOCK: (Singing) After I died and the make up had dried, I went back to my place. No moon that night but a heavenly light shone on my face. Still I thought it was odd, there was no sign of God just to usher me in. Then a voice from above, sugar-coated with love, said, let us begin. You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line...

MOON: When you stop and think about how many songs Paul Simon has written, you realize what a peculiar challenge it must be for him to avoid repeating, even in a glancing way, things he's done before. There's a place in one new song where he rhymes "station" with "destination," just as he did on the wistful classic "Homeward Bound." But here's the thing: With Paul Simon, sometimes what starts out sounding like an echo becomes something else entirely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS ETERNAL SACRED LIGHT")

BLOCK: (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...

MOON: Musically, this is Paul Simon's circa "Graceland," a deceptively simple little mantra that bubbles happily along. But listen to the words, and you discover the musings of a slightly cranky older man who has seen and heard lots in his lifetime. He's using sounds that worked in the past to frame new observations about honor, love, and the meaning of beauty in a culture where just about everything is disposable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS ETERNAL SACRED LIGHT")

BLOCK: (Singing) Check out the radio, pop music station. That don't sound like my music to me. Talk show host, what's that boy's name? Politics is ugly...

MOON: On his last album, "Surprise," Paul Simon went to some lengths to shake the "Graceland" template. He dabbled in electronics, and brought in the visionary Brian Eno to produce some tracks. It seemed like he was trying to create a new context for his observations. Not this time. Here, Simon reunited with producer Phil Ramone, who handled his 1975 hit "Still Crazy After All These Years."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT")

BLOCK: (Singing) Ain't it strange the way we're ignorant, how we seek out bad advice...

MOON: Maybe these familiar echoes, ghosts of past glories, are inevitable. Maybe, as happens to so many elder statesmen of pop, Paul Simon's best work is in the past.

H: While listening to this mixed bag of a record, whenever my attention drifted, along would come a stark insight delivered in a tone of cool ambivalence that was the audio equivalent of a tug on the sleeve. That's what's so interesting about this album. It's all, meh, heard that one before, so what? Until, quite suddenly, it's so beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT")

BLOCK: (Singing) So beautiful...

BLOCK: The latest album from Paul Simon is called "So Beautiful or So What." Our critic is Tom Moon. And tomorrow morning, you can hear Paul Simon talk about the album with Steve Inskeep, on MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT")

BLOCK: (Singing) Four men on the balcony overlooking the parking lot, pointing at a figure... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.