Paul Simon: the king of sprezzatura

You know life is what you make of it:
So beautiful or so what

Paul Simon’s set at Glastonbury (BBC2 Sunday evening) was largely composed of songs from Graceland (nothing wrong with that) and though he was suffering from a virus infection, I thought his performance was fine.  Apart from the title track, he steered clear of his magnificent new album, So Beautiful Or So What, explaining in an interview later that for Glastonbury it’s best to go with the familiar songs.

The consensus among most reviewers is that this is his best album since Graceland.  Who am I to disagree with Elvis Costello who writes in the liner notes:

I believe that this remarkable, thoughtful, often joyful record deserves to be recognized as among Paul Simon’s very finest achievements.

It’s a concept album: as Paul Simon says in the ‘making of’ video that accompanied the release, it’s a return to that great tradition that began with Revolver and Sgt Pepper.  Rather than start with a rhythmic premise as he has done with every album since Graceland, he decided that he would focus on the lyrics.  And the words would deal with big themes – love, belief, mortality, our place in universe.  I can’t think of any other songwriter who could embark on a project so ambitious and  end up producing music of such wit, profundity – and joy. Despite its portentous themes, the album is a thing of beauty, its sound shimmering and its lyrics life-affirming.

The cover art, with its sense of swirling galaxies and DNA’s double helix, announces that as Paul Simon approaches his 70th year he has mortality on his mind. Many of these songs address the inevitable, but offer solace by way of love and spirituality (God features in several songs, though this is far from being a preachy album in the style of Dylan, and it would be hard to figure out what Paul Simon actually thinks about God).  All that can be said is that Simon fuses existential concerns as wide as the universe with little cameos of quotidian human struggle.

On opening track, ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’, which samples and is constructed around a 1941 sermon by the Southern Baptist preacher Reverend J.M. Gates,  Simon finds no solace in material things:

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

Instead, the voice of Rev. Gates warns ‘when Christmas comes you may be laying in some lonesome grave … the undertaker is getting ready for you’, and Simon concludes:

If I could tell my Mom and Dad that the things we never had
Never mattered we were always okay
Getting ready, oh ready, ready for Christmas Day

Oh – and there’s the music.  The album is a joyous blend of old R&B, gospel, and African rhythms, adorned by mellifluous guitar playing by Vincent Nguini and Simon himself. One Amazon reviewer hits the nail on the head when they describe Simon as:

the king of sprezzatura, 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’.

The album is full of remarkable musical arrangements, incorporating touches that draw on the decades of Simon’s musical exploration and experience.  For example, in the witty ‘Rewrite’, a writer announces –

I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite
Gonna turn it into cash

– and to underscore the writerly concept, Yacouba Sissoko injects some typewriter-like kora sounds that I knew reminded me of something.  Ah, yes: 1950s, Children’s Favourites and Leroy Anderson’s ‘The Typewriter’.

Apologies for that diversion.

With ‘The Afterlife’ we’re back with God and death.  ‘After I died and the makeup had dried’, sings Simon, ‘I went back to my place’, but ‘it was odd, there was no sign of God’.  Then a voice from above booms:

You got to fill out a form first
And then you wait in the line

So – before glimpsing the divine, there’s the bureaucracy to contend with.

Well, it seems like our fate
To suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek

And when that’s done, and the Lord God is near, what do you say?

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

‘Dazzling Blue’ might just be the most beautiful song that Simon has written, enriched with Indian vocal chant and tabla percussion, that begins with unanswered questions about love and existence, and ends with the refuge of love itself and the marriage bed:

Truth or lie, the silence is revealing
An empty sky, a hidden mound of stone
But the CAT scan’s eye sees what the heart’s concealing
Nowadays, when everything is known

Maybe love’s an accident, or destiny is true
But you and I were born beneath a star of dazzling blue

There’s a similar trajectory in ‘Love and Hard Times’ that shifts from the fantasy of God paying a courtesy call on Earth one Sunday morning but deciding he needs to leave, fast –  ‘these people are slobs’ – to what, to my mind, is the most beautiful verse on the album:

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

On ‘Love is Eternal Sacred Light’ Simon manages to compress the whole of creation, from the ‘big bang’ to terrorism, into six lines:

How’d it all begin? Started with a bang
Couple of light years later, stars and planets sang
Fire warmed the cold, waves of colours 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

But then, before things get too portentous, Simon’s dry wit kicks in.  It turns out that it’s God himself telling this tale, and he’s just joking:

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

On the album’s title track, Simon cooks up a gumbo in the first verse, then reads his kids a bedtime story, telling them

…life is what you make of it:
So beautiful or so what

– only for this image to erupt violently into the song:

Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot
And the sirens long melody
Singing saviour pass me not
Aint 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

In her album review for The Observer, Kitty Empire wrote:

A great many of Simon’s contemporaries – Dylan and Neil Young, to name but two – have grappled with the most un-rock’n’roll business of growing older and taking stock. In turns playful and gently profound, Simon doesn’t regard the future with dread or the past with regret. He re-emphasises the need for love, a good time and a sense of perspective. When we are all gone, he notes three-quarters of the way through this lustrous record, no zebra will shed a tear.

If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it
Should disappear
Would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah
Care enough to shed one zebra tear?

Questions for the angels
Who believes in angels?
Fools do
Fools and pilgrims all over the world

In his liner notes, Elvis Costello writes:

These wonderful songs refuse to despair, despite the evidence all around us. “So Beautiful Or So What” rejects the allure of fashionable darkness and the hypnosis of ignorance – better to contemplate and celebrate the endurance of the spirit and the persistence of love.

2 thoughts on “Paul Simon: the king of sprezzatura

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