Published: Apr 12, 2011
Some years ago, I was invited to be on the membership committee of PEN, the distinguished international literary organization. That was not someone’s best idea — because there’s almost no reason to reject any working writer, meetings tended to be boring — so I thought of a way to liven them up.
The problem with PEN, I said, is that it has a very narrow, nineteenth century sense of what constitutes a “writer.” But, I continued, that definition exploded in 1962 or 1963, when Bob Dylan started hitting his stride. Now we’ve had four or five decades of songs that wouldn’t be out of place in poetry magazines — we ought to let a few of these kids into PEN. Dylan first, of course, then the usual suspects: Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, John Prine. And Paul Simon.
Talk about a non-start. I’m not sure the higher-ups at PEN ever really heard the idea of welcoming singer-songwriters. Or maybe they did — not much later, the membership committee was disbanded.
And now it’s a decade later, and I’m listening to “So Beautiful or So What,” Paul Simon’s 12th solo release and his first in 5 years. Music is not a competitive sport — unless you happen to be a musician — but I’d put this up there with recent Dylan and a few lengths ahead of the recent Springsteen releases.
This will not be a majority view. If you love Dylan — and I do, just not blindly — he will always stand alone, like Shakespeare. And no one works harder in live performance than Springsteen; he’s a monument to the dignity and decency of blue-collar America. Simon? In the "poet laureate of rock" race, he’ll always be third, simply because he never seems to break a sweat. He’s the king of sprezzatura, which is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
Gee, it must be a bitch to be that talented.
Listening to this CD, I think just the opposite: It don’t come easy, this thing Simon does here. I know him slightly, and while I would not describe him as unhappy or neurotic, neither would I describe him as a jolly fellow. He’s interior, quiet, with a sharp eye and a sharper tongue. The years when he was the crown prince of irony are long gone; for a while, he’s been one of music’s most serious thinkers. And now he’s thought — and felt — his way to happy. That is, if these songs are to be believed, to peace in his personal life and a cheerful acceptance of the universe. When you’re 69, that’s pretty great. [To buy “So Beautiful” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Some critics and friends are calling this Simon’s best CD since “Graceland.” [To buy “Graceland” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.] I can understand why. The music is international. The playing is loose, relaxed — indeed, it sometimes sounds as if you’re listening to a rehearsal.
But it’s not “Graceland,” not in any way I care about. Not musically, first of all — you can appreciate this music, can even love it, but you’re not going to walk down the street humming these songs. And it’s not just that the melodies won’t support that pleasure. It’s that, this time, you really have to pay attention to the words. Because if you start connecting the dots, you get a picture of Simon’s long and successful marriage to singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, and, even more, to what might be a roadmap to happiness of your own. Like this:
Sweet July, and we drove the Montauk Highway
And walked along the cliffs above the sea
And we wondered why, and imagined it was someday
And that is how the future came to be
Dazzling blue, roses red, fine white linen
To make a marriage bed
And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through
And dream our dreams of dazzling blue
My Lord, that is lovely. And lovelier, still, for the knowledge that it has a sell-by date. From another song:
Something called me from my sleep
Love and blessings
Ours to hold but not to keep
Paul Simon, a romantic? How else do you explain this:
Who believes in angels?
Fools and pilgrims all over the world.
I take “So Beautiful” as testimony: A man fights his way through all the exterior crap and the even messier inner garbage, and emerges with a statement that makes it seem easy. Indeed, a throwaway: so beautiful or so what.
I’m just a raindrop in a bucket
A coin dropped in a slot
I am an empty house on Weed Street
Across the road from the vacant lot
You know life is what you make of it
So beautiful or so what…
Ours to choose. But from my seat, this music makes me want what Simon describes as “eternal sacred light/ Free from the shackles of time.” In a dark time, I’ll hold this CD close.