Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What


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:

Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".