Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What

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There is a single moment on Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What that to me could stand for the whole record. It’s four tracks in, in the middle of the song “Rewrite” after the first chorus when it moves into an instrumental turn around section. At the end of a cool acoustic guitar lick, there is a moment where what I think are a bell and a human whistle hang suspended for two beats, like a breath. It is whimsical, delightful, smart, and poignantly beautiful in its way. At different times when I hear it I’m not sure if it makes me want to laugh or cry.

And that about sums up my whole experience of the record.

But it just wouldn’t do to leave it at that, so I’ll go ahead and expound just a little bit.

Surprise, Simon’s 2006 record produced by the adventurously experimental Brian Eno, still tops the list as my reigning favorite Paul Simon record (read my Rabbit Room review of it here), with Rhythm Of The Saints and Graceland contending for second and third place. But So Beautiful Or So What is definitely making a case for itself every time I listen and will certainly fall somewhere in the top 4 for me. Though it’s too early to tell exactly where it will settle in just yet, it is certainly deserving of the recognition it’s receiving as a worthy entry in his already esteemed catalogue.

So Beautiful Or So What continues the conversation Simon started in Surprise about God, Love, The Meaning of Life (you know, trivial stuff) but he does so here with an even lighter touch (which is saying a lot). The same is true of the production. Where Eno (legendary producer for U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, etc.) daringly created a fury of sound and texture with a melodious mélange of synths and loops, Simon similarly adventures on So Beautiful Or So What, but in a more modest, gentle way, this time limiting himself to a palette of mostly organic instruments and sounds.

What is maybe the biggest musical surprise of this outing is how prominently Simon features sampling taken from things like the slowed down sound of a train engine, the bark of a Wildebeast (though I’ve yet to figure out where this one makes an appearance on the record – does anybody know?), and most notably a vintage recording of a fiery preacher from the 40’s. Simon manages to nestle all of them unobtrusively into this song set.

There is this intangible joy that keeps rising to the surface throughout the record. Though he’s pushing 70, Simon is in full possession of his gift and clearly enjoying himself. He has often been boyish in his work, but where it has sometimes had a slightly subversive quality in the past (i.e. “Kodachrome”) here it gives way to something more–maybe innocent is the right word. And while his formidable genius is still at work, these songs seem more like a playground for the heart. And he is inviting us to play along.

Is this his secret? How many other popular music artists do you know who are still making relevant (not to mention arguably their best) work in their mid to late 60’s? It’s clear Simon’s glory hasn’t faded a bit – is it because he still knows how to play and approaches his work with childlike curiosity?

It seems to me now an impossible task to pick and choose what songs and lyrics to highlight – I am tempted to comment on every song and include every word from this record.  But I’ll try to be selective for brevity’s sake.

The record kicks off with the gospel exuberance of “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”. The bed for this song is a sample of a 1941 pre-war speech by preacher and gospel singer, Reverend J.M. Gates. (For geeks like me, I found a link to the original sermon here. It is more than half way down the page.) The play of Simon’s wry lyrics about war, the economy, and Christmases past combined with Gates unusual stump preaching about who all is getting ready for Christmas (“the jailer, the police force, the undertaker is getting ready for you!”) make for a delightful and unlikely duet.

I’m getting ready
For the power and the glory and the story of Christmas day…

In “Questions For Angels” Simon becomes inward and existential:

Folded in his backpack pocket
The questions that he copied from his heart
Who am I in this lonely world?
And where will I make my bed tonight?
When twilight turns to dark

Later in the same song he sings of repentance and fate with beguilingly simple words that touch fault lines deep inside the heart:

If you shop for love in a bargain store
And you don’t get what you bargained for
Can you get your money back?
If an empty train in a railroad station
Calls you to its destination
Can you choose another track?

As only he can, Simon sums up the history of the world and mankind in “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” from creation to our current milieu in a few short lines that are loaded with beauty, meaning, and insight:

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

Earth becomes a farm
Farmer takes a wife
Wife becomes a river and the giver of life
Man becomes machine
Oil runs down his face
Machine becomes a man with a bomb in the marketplace

In the middle of the song, the telescope zooms out as Simon lowers his voice and assumes the character of 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
Well, maybe someday they will…

And finally the telescope zooms back in to focus on a single human life amid the grand cosmic scheme of things: Simon driving down the highway in an old Ford tuning the radio dial:

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
At the end of the dial there’s the gospel show
Maybe now I can exit and rest…

And finally he sums up the difference between Love and evil with four razor sharp lines that manage to say so much with an economy of words that I envy:

Love is eternal sacred light
Free from the shackles of time
Evil is darkness, sight without sight
A demon that feeds on the mind

Simon further demonstrates his acumen for naming the human condition in the title track:

Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and love
Like a pair of rolling dice
So beautiful or so what

Simon explains the significance of the title of the record in the liner notes where he writes:

“A thing of beauty?
Who needs it?
But that’s the very mystery and fascination of it,
The trick, as I know it, is to care like hell and not give a damn at the same time or as more elegantly proposed here: ‘So Beautiful or So What.’”

This seems as good a rule as any that I’ve heard for getting at the best way to live a life that is engaged and yet not consumed by the things we care most about. (Incidentally, it’s a way of life made possible in my mind by what Christ makes available in giving us the right place to invest our identity: in Christ alone. But that’s another blog. I don’t mean to get preachy here.)

I feel like he demonstrates this rule in the song “Love and Hard Times” where he turns his graceful attention to marriage and risks not giving a damn by willingly embracing a hackneyed cliché:

I loved her the first time I saw her
I know that’s an old songwriting cliché
I loved you the first time I saw you
I can’t describe it any other way…

This is followed by one of the more intimate moments of the record, about the turbulence and blessing of love:

When the rains came, the tears burned, windows rattled, locks turned
It’s easy to be generous when you’re on a roll
It’s hard to be grateful when you’re out of control
And love is gone

The light at the edge of the curtain
Is the quiet dawn
The bedroom breathes
In clicks and clacks
Uneasy heartbeat, can’t relax
But then your hand takes mine
Thank God, I found you in time
Thank God, I found you
Thank God, I found you

Simon’s eloquent gratitude continues in “Love And Blessings”:

Love and blessings
Simple kindness
Fell like rain on thirsty land
Fields and gardens
Long abandoned
Came to life in dust and sand…

Love and blessings
Simple kindness
Ours to hold but not to keep

One of the more delightful and moving things about Simon’s writing for this record is the playful reverence he brings to ineffable mystery. He turns Pentecostal on us in “The Afterlife”, speaking in the tongues of the heavenly language of the music that first captured his heart: doo-wop music. When Simon bumps up against the Great Mystery that is too holy and mysterious for words to do justice, the most literate writer in modern music is all of a sudden tongue-tied:

After you climb up the ladder of time
The Lord God is near
Face-to-face in the vastness of space
Your words disappear
And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love
And the current is strong
But all that remains when you try to explain
Is a fragment of song
Lord, is it Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Lord, Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Be Bop a Lula…

Once again Paul Simon comes as a child, offering his hallelujah in the heart language of the music of his childhood.

Most if not all of the territory he explores on this record involves ultimate Truths of the capital “T” variety, whether God, death, love, or what all of it means, if it means anything. There are potent images in his narrative – like when God and his only son come to earth for a visit one day – that I’ve sidestepped because I would be too tempted to impose my interpretation of Simon’s meaning, and to do so would likely diminish the lyric. And so I will leave them for you to discover and decipher for yourself, troubling, mysterious, and beautiful as they are. There’s so much more that could be said about the virtues of this record, but I’ll close where I began, with the song “Rewrite”.

I remember hearing author Orson Scott Card talking about a woman he knew when he was a missionary in South America. Her husband was a wicked and abusive man and after a lifetime of faithfully enduring his cruelty, she finally stood at his graveside while Card oversaw the funeral ceremony. Following the eulogy, Card was surprised to see this woman who was finally free of her reprobate husband fall on his coffin in tears, wailing, extolling the virtues of her husband as a good man who cared for his family, gave of himself, and loved well. Card remarked that in that moment he felt like he witnessed a kind of redemptive revenge as she wiped the memory of this awful man from the face of the earth. She got to have the final word and in that final word she spoke who he was out of existence and in his place spoke into being the man that he should have been. Card experienced it as a kind of holy justice.

I thought of this story when listening to what is my early favorite on the record, “Rewrite.” In verse two, Simon sings:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
I’m gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms

Rather than Card’s redemptive kind of revenge, I experience this lyric as a redeeming grace – a generous telling of another man’s story better than he was able to tell it himself, perhaps the way he would have wished to tell it but for one reason or another was too broken to do so. Who can’t relate to this? I hope someone will tell my story with such generosity one day, my failures rewritten to reveal the love that was always in my heart to give, though often never found the right way to express itself. It’s beautiful to me and may be my favorite lyric on a record full of great lyrics that are simultaneously towering and humble, full of wit and wisdom, delight, grace and above all a generous gratitude.

For more insight from Simon himself, check out this video he made about the record:


33 Comments

  1. MargaretW

    I have never listened to Paul Simon’s music other than what I heard on popular radio and I know him only through the words of Carrie Fisher in one of her biographies. But what you have described here in such excellent prose has drawn me, like a thirst I never knew I had. And I know now that I will have to listen to this music and soak it in, if only to better understand the love you have for his work out of respect for the words written on this humble website. All the while grieving because I can’t be at Hutchmoot again this year.

  2. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Thanks for this detailed review, Jason. Now I like the album even more. The first time I put it on, I listened to it five times before I hit stop, and it’s been in constant rotation ever since. I am alternately blown away by the lyrics and the production/arrangements.

    The first lyrics you quoted from Questions for the Angels are my favorite.

    As for favorite musical moment, while I love that triangle (or bell) layered with a whistle, I can’t get over the guitar tone in Love is Eternal Sacred Light, in the three note riff played on the downbeat of the bar between the second and third lines below (right before he sings “talk show host”).

    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?

  3. Profile photo of Randall Goodgame

    Randall Goodgame

    @randallgoodgame

    I LOOOVE this record. Like Stephen, I listened to it over and over at first. And I wouldn’t have wanted to review it in case I couldn’t do it justice. So thanks for stepping in and filling the void so admirably with this great review.

  4. Mike

    I remember AP saying that Paul Simon, James Taylor and Rich Mullins were the three best song writers to him. I have to agree about PS. He goes deep. Thanks for the review Jason. I will be buying this album. I love Surprise

  5. John Barber

    I can’t agree more, Jason. My favorite thing about this record is how PAUL SIMON it is, if that makes sense. I’ve been trying to explain to my eleven year old how some musicians own certain sounds, and this is the prototypical example. You could strip all the vocals off this record, and there would still be no doubt that it was Paul Simon. It’s a really wonderful album.

    Thanks for the awesome review.

  6. Sharon

    I have a dumb question: what does it mean when someone says music is “organic?”

  7. LauraP

    The only thing better than loving a thing of beauty is seeing it through the eyes (hearing it through the ears?) of someone else who loves it too. Thanks for analyzing, articulating, and sharing specifically what you found so lovely in this album. It is so delightful to listen again and say, “Oh YES, that IS wonderful in that way, isn’t it?” It’s like you amplified the gift by showing me another angle to appreciate. Thanks for that.

  8. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Sharon: usually something along the lines of non-electronic. For example, the “percussion/drum loop” in one of the songs on this record was created by human voices instead of electronic sounds, which gives a very cool effect. And there’s the previously mentioned whistle/layered with triangle or bell, instead of an electronic keyboard sound used there.

  9. Lauren

    love. this. review.

    thank you for expressing my feelings when i cant find the words for them.

    ps: surprise is my favorite. closely followed by Rhythm of the Saints. I feel that Rhythm is the “Obvious” second choice… 🙂

  10. Jen

    Of all the things you write here, your music reviews have to be my favorite. It’s really fun to see someone get excited about music they love and explain why it means so much, and I usually end up discovering something new. I’m actually just now getting into Paul Simon thanks to your enthusiasm (AP’s too! :)) I feel so far behind…

    I was listening to this record the other day, sort of in the background while I was doing something else. But somewhere midway through — “Love and Hard Times,” I think — I had to drop what I was doing and just listen. That’s powerful writing.

    And now I’ll have to add Surprise to my list of “Albums I Should’ve Heard by Now,” especially knowing Brian Eno produced it. Thanks!

  11. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Taya and I had the pleasure of seeing Paul Simon a week ago! It was fantastic, one of the best concerts I’ve been to (and I’ve seen a good many). This one was on my bucket list, so I’m grateful I got to see one of the masters.

    One of the things that really struck me was how subtle and modest the production was. There were lights and a big screen with images behind him, but clearly the songs were the star of the show and took center stage. It was refreshing.

    He opened with one of my least favorite songs from Graceland, “Crazy Love”, and though it was a surprising choice in my mind, in the context of the show it was great and it makes me listen to the song differently.

    Another surprise was that he played the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun”. Highlights of the night for me were “Rewrite”, “The Obvious Child”, and “The Sounds Of Silence”.

    But the best part of the night was my lovely date – Taya. I was so grateful that she and I got to see this together. Seeing her moved the same way that I was was a gift – sharing the evening with her made it twice as good. I think Paul would understand and not feel slighted in the least :- )

  12. John Barber

    Funny story about “The Obvious Child” (which I had on CASSETTE). When I was in tenth grade,we were assigned a project in English class. The project was this: bring in one of your favorite songs, along with the lyrics printed out. The teacher would choose the best, most creative one, and we would, as a class, discuss the meaning of the lyrics. I chose “The Obvious Child” (because it’s amazing). I knew mine would be picked. I just knew it.

    Did mine get picked? No. What did? Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo.”

    Now that I think about it, maybe it’s not so funny after all.

  13. whipple

    Ah, John. That thread of disappointment does not end. As an undergrad, I went happily to Music History with a recording of “Honga and Freylekhs from Podoloy,” a Jewish wedding fiddle tune done up by Ballydowse. The result was my classmates giving me odd looks. Somehow, I think I bore them with boyish pride…

    Jason, thanks so much for exploring this record. I’ve not gotten into Paul Simon except for Graceland and a greatest hits record (Negotiations and Love Songs). Both are well worth the listening, but it’s high time to reinvest.

  14. HelenOE

    This is a truly wonderful album. With every listen, it gives up a little more food for though or motive of enjoyment.

    The wildebeest is in “Rewrite.” Also in “Rewrite” is one of my favorite lyrical moments: “When I said help me help me help me help me, thank you! I’d no idea that you were there…” The sheer startlement of it to me suggests a real encounter with the Divine.

    He’s booked into a lot of casinos on this tour. I really enjoy the irony of Paul Simon at those venues singing “And play a game with time and love like a pair of rolling dice.”

    Finally, and nothing to do with the new album at all, go find and watch a video on YouTube titled “Paul Simon, Rayna singing Duncan.” It’s from one of his Toronto concerts a few days ago. Rayna Ford was in the front row and requested Duncan, saying she learned guitar on that song– and he invited her up on stage to play it. Watch how his expression changes from ironic amusement to a wider and wider smile as he realizes that she’s going to be able to pull off an OK version of the song– and from then on, he’s encouraging her and directing the band as they come in to support her. At one point he even steps behind her so he can quietly prompt her with the name of a chord she’s omitted. I’ve been to 12 Paul Simon concerts over a span of 38 years and I never would have expected to see something like this. Just a wonderful moment of musical generosity.

  15. Chase Collins

    I just heard about Paul Simon in an interview that Patrick Rothfuss, one of my favorite authors, did a while ago. I know that I’ve heard his name and music mentioned before. However, I never really listened to him. But when I saw this article just a couple hours after hearing him mentioned in that interview I decided to check him out. I love him! Thank you for this review 🙂

  16. Benjamin

    Paul Simon is in my list of five greatest artists and lyricists or all time. His efforts on Surprise and So Beautiful or So What, are absolutely amazing and prove that Mr. Simon still has plenty to show the rest of the world about music.

    Thanks Jason for this great DEEP post. I am grateful for your thoughts.

  17. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Jason, this is so good! (That’s a non-extraneous exclamation point.) I thought several times of trying to write a post about the great Paul Simon but couldn’t figure out how to approach it—such a formidable task, and you were equal to it.

    I grew up knowing about Simon & Garfunkel (let’s face it, every American has probably heard “The Sound of Silence” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at least once in their lives), and even listened to them quite a bit (in between listens to Seal and Sting and Skynyrd). But one night when I was in Bible college I was serving food to Rich Mullins before his concert and I overheard someone ask him who he thought was the best songwriter around. Without hesitation he said, “Paul Simon.”

    “I must study this ‘Paul Simon’,” I thought to my twenty-year-old self. And I did. I bought Graceland and listened to it about eighty times in a row. I also paid closer attention to his Simon & Garfunkel stuff, and was amazed. It’s not just that he can write a lyric like nobody’s business, he knows how to deliver it—effortlessly and with a sonorous grace that comes across as kindness.

    That he’s almost seventy, on one hand, gives youngsters like us a glimmer of hope that maybe we’ll be still playing music when we’ve got grandkids in high school–on the other hand, I have serious doubts that I’ll be cool enough to mention Jay Z (or his future equivalent) in a song, or to write one that rhymes “Brooklyn Bridge” and “pilgrimage”.

    I also want to express my gratitude to Mr. Simon for being bold enough to sing about spiritual matters in a culture that tends to roll their eyes at such things. I think there’s something beautiful and honest about the fact that this Jewish kid from New Jersey is willing to sing about God and the church and even include gospel sermons on his record, just because that’s what’s on his mind these days. He’s not pushing an agenda; he’s just writing and singing what’s on his heart. I love his story about Paul McCartney asking him backstage, “But aren’t you Jewish?” The older he gets, he says, the more he writes about God. I hope he keeps listening to that voice.

    I’m going to see Mr. Simon at the Ryman Auditorium next week, and I can hardly wait. He’s a treasure, and as for his music, I thank God I found him.

  18. Tony Heringer

    “(That’s a non-extraneous exclamation point.) ”

    Not only is Barliman setting out punctuation rules he’s explaining them. 🙂
    What would Father T-Mac say? He’d probably say something about sub-text – too much, too little? I’ll have to re-watch the OMR on “Soul Surfer” as its all so confusing.

    Like Barliman, I loved that Paul McCartney story in the first video. Thanks Jason for your thoughtful insights on this record. I’ve always loved Graceland and someday I’ll pick up Surprise. I was avoiding this new record because I knew I’d have to buy it from the moment I heard a track standing in line at Starbucks. Mr. Budget may have to spring for this and the new AKUS album. Once I do pick this up, its back here to re-read this review.

    I also thought his premise on the album as a viable art form and the whole way he brought that out in the video was awesome. It was really interesting to see him process the recording of music and also its content. It was as if he was surprised at the way several of the songs included God. Priceless!

    Other Sexagenarians still making viable music? The Boss! Not too many more, but I’m sure the Rabbit Room will supply some, Lord willing!

  19. John Barber

    Man, ‘Love and Hard Times’ is a good song. It’s like the ‘Still Crazy After All These Years- era stuff, without the cynicism.

    Anyone watch him on SNL? It was fantastic.

  20. LauraP

    @John Barber – I LOVED him on SNL! Watching the band, I was thinking how I hope the RR musicians are still playing together with such skill and joy decades from now. And did you catch that little satisfied smile on Paul’s face at the end of “So Beautiful”? Not at all smug, just like he knew it was good and taking delight in it. You’re right. It was fantastic.

  21. yankeegospelgirl

    I’m a bit late to the Paul Simon party, but I’m awed to have discovered him. This album is fascinating. I’ve been contrasting it with _Graceland_. I would say that with _Graceland_, the lyrics seemed to support the music. I feel like that’s inverted with this record, and the music takes a back seat to the lyrics. I’m not sure which I prefer, but I will say that I find _Graceland_ a little easier to enjoy. The music is addictive and it sticks in my head better. But these are unquestionably some of his best lyrics.

    I will say I took away a slightly different meaning from the title track, but I’m actually planning to write a blog post about that so maybe I should save it. 🙂 I’m studying it in conjunction with Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Lord of the Dance.”

  22. yankeegospelgirl

    Oh, but I wanted to say thanks for quoting that bit from the liner notes. “Teach us to care and not to care.” I wonder if Simon ever read Eliot or just ended up saying basically the same thing in his own words by coincidence.

  23. yankeegospelgirl

    Okay, here’s my stab at interpreting “Love and Hard Times.” I absolutely love this lyric even though ultimately I have to part ways with what I take to be its ultimate message.

    The first stanza in a nutshell: God’s attitude to this world is indifferent at best, cruel at worst. The world is thirsty for God. Even the orange blossoms open up to welcome Him (and His only Son). “Old folks” are “weeping.” Times are hard. But God is here. Surely this is love. But next moment he’s “disappeared.” These people who are so desperately happy to see him? “Slobs.” We don’t want a scene now. Let’s get going. This is just a “courtesy call,” after all. “And it’s love in hard times,” the final line, is clearly meant to be sarcastic.

    At that point the song becomes an ode to Simon’s conception of what true love looks like. And it’s all about the deep, tumultuous and ultimately beautiful relationship between one man and one woman. True love is human connection. True love is the wife taking her husband’s hand and calming his uneasy heartbeat, as he breathes a prayer of thanks (interestingly, to God), that he found her, he found her, he found her…

    The “Thank God” aside, what’s his point ultimately? For my money, he wants God’s “courtesy call” to end up looking shallow next to the poetic picture he paints in the rest of the stanzas. Forget about God. We can see what true love looks like right here, just the two of us.

  24. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Two things I think of when I listen to this miracle of a song. First, I release Simon from accuracy here – as far as I know he is a more of a seeker and is less inclined to make theological pronouncements than he is to let some spiritual longing shape and express his curiosity. That he feels free to speak in the vernacular of Christianity in his art and the expression of his spiritual curiosity is something I celebrate and enjoy so much in his music.

    Songwriting isn’t always meant to be accurate anyway – in some ways it is an imprecise mode of communication. Books are better suited for that. What I mean is that music is a language of the heart which tends to emphasize one emotion or thought over another in the course of it’s three and half minute run time. If I demand 100% accuracy and balance in every song I hear, then I will likely miss the heart of the artist and what he or she is saying. Does that make sense?

    An example is that my mentor has been talking with me about how much I demand accuracy from the people I talk with – especially my family. When I quibble over words and details (“now wait a second, that’s not exactly what I said…”) I miss hearing the heart behind the words. Someone in your life may say that they hate you, when in truth they don’t, but need to use strong words like “hate” to communicate the depth of their hurt. etc.

    All that to say, when we release people from the need to be accurate, it allows us to hear something else, often times the truest expression of their heart. In this way, music is a more precise conveyer of the heart. When I release Simon from theological accuracy, I hear these songs in a new light.

    One thing I wonder about this song in particular is whether he’s speaking of God at all. It’s possible that the God and his only son verses of the song are metaphorical, speaking of the grace and life-giving power of love as being like the presence of God, how fleeting love can feel, and how the absence of it feels like the absence of all grace and goodness.

    The song then goes into two verses that mirror the first two – the joy of love, followed by the despair of it’s absence. I think in the first verses he’s communicating the emotions of love, loss, hope, and despair and then in the next part getting more specific and talking about his wife, the joy of falling in love with her, the storm of conflict that endangers their relationship, and then finally the grace of finding each other again – in fact, the true grace of it. It is God that he thanks at the end of it all.

    That’s my take on it. When he speaks of the “restless Lord” I imagine him to be speaking of a quality of restlessness that threatens all love relationships and gives way to “hard times”. Elsewhere where he speaks of the beauty of God’s presence I think he may be speaking metaphorically of his experience of love. However, at the end, “Thank God I found you in time… Thank God I found you…” – here I’m inclined to think that he is expressing true gratitude to God (not the capricious god he describes in verse two, which again I think may be a metaphor).

    But who knows? I just know it’s a beautiful song that feels both imprecise and true.

  25. Tony Heringer

    Jason,
    I did take the literal approach with the first two stanzas.  The final line gives a twist that reminds me of the Psalmist: “If we stay it’s bound to be a mob scene.  But, disappear, and its love and hard times”  I didn’t take it so much as a knock against God but perphaps an allusion to Christ’s Accension.  I with you, Simon has always flirted with Christian themes, but in a rudimentary way not in a polemical way.  Which I took as your point in the initial post when referring to Paul McCartney’s reaction to Simon’s music.  Definitely a fan of this record and his music in general. Thanks again for the post. It was not in my top 3 of 2011, but definitely my top 10.

  26. yankeegospelgirl

    How did Don MacLean put it? Something about how at a certain point, the songwriter just looks at all the interpretations that have been foisted and hoisted on his art through the years… and maintains a decorous silence. I feel like what we’re doing here is the right kind of probing and interpreting. Sometimes it does get ridiculous though. My favorite example of this is with “The Boxer.” People were trying to think of what the “Lie-la-lie” could mean and came up with silly, elaborate stuff about how it had something to do with Bob Dylan, and he was “lying…” Then I found the interview with Simon himself where he said it was just filler because he couldn’t think of anything to say, then decided to leave it in. He didn’t really have a problem with people taking it how they liked, but he said that whenever he sings that part, he’s “a little embarrassed.”

  27. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I agree – a song can be interpreted to death 🙂 Kind of takes the fun out of it, too. I’m guilty as charged, but still enjoyed the chance to wonder about that song with you – one of my favorite songs of Simon’s, for sure. I enjoy how slippery it is, too 🙂

    Elsewhere in his work (and even this album) he depicts God as benevolent and caring, “who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?
    God will like he waters the flowers on your windowsill…”

    Which is also what made me take a look from a different angle when “God” appears capricious and uncaring in this song. Just my own personal thoughts, though.

  28. yankeegospelgirl

    Simon seems to view God as something of an enigma. It’s as though he is all at once fascinated, puzzled, amused, annoyed and attracted by Him. I don’t know whether “angered” belongs in the list. That seems a little heavy for Simon’s light brand of casualness. He’s definitely less bitter than a Josh Ritter. But here and there, I get the sense that he’s laughing at God a little bit.

  29. Tony Heringer

    One more thing to add, check out Elvis Costello’s take on this song (from the liner notes included with the album):

    “In “Love And Hard Times”, two-thirds of the Trinity arrive on earth only to disagree over who and what is worthy of salvation. This bold and, for any other songwriter, completely humbling piece of composition took my breath away on first hearing.

    The opening statement is as lovely as anything Paul has written. I felt as if I was suddenly within the idyllic scene of natural beauty that it describes, only for it to be leavened by the Lord’s blue aside, “We’d better get going,” as He departs the scene.

    The song concludes with the recognition that it is the reassuring touch of a lover that calms an uneasy but grateful heart near dawn. If love is discovery made in a moment, then it is still one for which we must give thanks.”

  30. yankeegospelgirl

    Hey, thought you’d enjoy this link. Paul Simon breaks the song down step by step.

    I think my interpretation is really quite close to his intended meaning. Take a listen:

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