I have always loved the music of Paul Simon, and those 60s and 70s albums with Art Garfunkel were magic in a bottle. And then there were the powerful solo albums, especially Still Crazy after All These Years, Graceland, and The Rhythm of the Saints, and most recently Surprise (which was).
But about this latest album So Beautiful or So What — what shall I say, it is transcendent! It will transfigure and transfix you if you give it half a chance. It reminds me of John Donne’s poem ‘A Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness’. In that poem Donne talks about tuning up here below to get ready to sing in the heavenly choir. In fact he talks about preparing to be made God’s music, and thinking here how to tune his instrument. I think Paul is being made God’s music even now, he just isn’t fully aware of it.
This album of Paul Simon, whether he was channeling Donne or not is all about God, the afterlife, Jesus and angels, and you name it. It may be the most Biblically religious album ever made by a mainstream musician. In fact, it led Paul McCartney when he heard a bit of this to ask— ‘Aren’t you a Jew? How come you singing about Christmas and Jesus, and that sort of stuff?’
Paul Simon, it seems, has been wide open to the Spirit, whether he is much of a church or synagogue attender or not. And as a person who believes that God’s grace and Spirit is not confined to the usual religious spaces and the usual religious places, I am excited about this album. It’s something every Christian should hear and absorb at some point. It’s just more confirmation that regardless of our background, we are all created in God’s image, and longing to know so much more about our Maker. This album could have been entitled— ‘Prepare to Meet Thy Maker’.
Let’s talk about the music for a moment. This album continues the exploration of world music sounds, perhaps especially from Africa. Rhythmically it will keep your toes tapping, and I can tell you as a musician—- don’t try this at home. Too many different time signatures and syncopations. You feel like you dropped into a jam session with Paul and African musicians in Soweto with a surprise visit from Rev. J.M. Gates. The song ‘Love and Hard Times’ begins “God and his only Son paid a courtesy call on Earth one Sunday morning. Orange blossoms opened their fragrant lips, Songbirds sang from the tips of Cottonwoods, Old folks wept for his love in these hard times. “ The second verse suggests that it is a good thing God only came briefly, cause had he stayed it would be a mob scene, and people would not have to learn how to love, even in hard times—– interesting!!
This album is a little gem…. Forget the download, go for the incarnational form with the cover art and DVD. It’s time to unGnosticize our music for a while instead of stripping it of all its aesthetic context and qualities. The album is only 38 minutes long….. and it’s one of those deals where you say—- ‘Where did it go, and why wasn’t it much longer?’ Kind of like Jesus’ stay on earth. But maybe it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, or is it absence that makes the heart go wander? Whatever it is, this album is So Beautiful and it should not lead you to say So What.