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.