It might seem a tad early to announce the best album of 2011 but I am pretty sure there won't be an album released this year that I will listen to more than Paul Simon's So Beautiful Or So What. I can't stop playing it. People that follow me on Twitter and Facebook will know this already and I mentioned the album here and said we'd be returning to it at some point.
And this is that point. I've decided - ahead of time - that, in all likelihood the new Paul Simon album will be my favourite of 2011. Now, it's obviously possible - with over half the year to go - that it might change, but I don't think so. And let me just stress right now that it's been a superb year for music so far - there are great new albums arriving weekly into my letterbox. Often it is weak albums arriving greatly. Not this year. I've loved a lot of the new music I've heard (DeVotchka, Papercuts, Dodos, The Unthanks) but the Paul Simon album is definitely a special case.
I feel so strongly about it that I organised some giveaway copies - my thanks to the kind folk at Universal who have offered up three copies of So Beautiful Or So What for me to give away today. I figure you can't go declaring something your Album of The Year (in May!) without wanting people to hear it. So I hope that some of you reading feel as strongly as I do about the album - or are very keen to hear it at any rate.
Obviously some of you will have no interest, many will have written Paul Simon off years ago.
It's a separate topic perhaps, but I've long been a fan and been impressed with his quality control. I really don't think he's made a bad album. He takes his time - he thinks about what he is writing and releasing; there is no desperation to keep his name out there. Granted, he can probably afford to take his time (financially speaking). But I admire the man for picking his best songs and releasing them when he's ready.
That said, Paul Simon probably fell off the radar for a few years after The Rhythm Of The Saints - the album that had the unenviable task of following on from Graceland. I think Rhythm is a superb album - I get more from it, these days, than from Graceland. It's one of my favourite Paul Simon albums. But that was 20 years ago. Since then the much maligned, overly ambitious Songs From The Capeman (1997) is rewarding if you're prepared to put the time in - but it seems not many were. You're The One (2000) and Surprise (2006) kept the brand rolling (sure they were not his finest work) but there really hasn't been a monumental flop.
Look at some of his contemporaries (Lou Reed, Neil Young, Bob Dylan) - they all had some embarrassing albums. Even Joni Mitchell struggled in the 1980s, singing about cigarette machines and duetting with Billy Idol.
Simon might sneak off for cash-in reunions with his old nearly-pal Art from time to time - but it could be worse. At least he's moving forward with his solo career. He hasn't woken up to find he's become Don Henley or Glenn Frey.
Anyway, that's all for the background ... I need to tell you a bit about So Beautiful Or So What.
The first song that caught my attention was the second song, The Afterlife. It's an amazing groove that's struck - and sustained. Never falling away, never overpowering, the band just sits and cooks. First song, Getting Ready For Christmas Day, is not terrible by any means, but to me it's the one Paul Simon-by-numbers song, the obvious opener designed/placed to not offend anyone giving him a chance 20 years on from Rhythm of the Saints or 25 years on from Graceland.
The Afterlife features a mellifluous guitar line, shadowing the vocal - it makes you realise that for all the claims that used to be about of Paul Simon being something of a fair-weather friend to world music, a musical tourist doing more than just taking photographs and leaving footprints, he really does carry with him the various musics that have informed and inspired. He bends them and blends them and has created a sound all his own.
In any one song on So Beautiful Or So What you can hear the African and South American textures, rhythms and melodies of two of his most famous solo albums but there are also the earlier hallmarks of his solo sound - flashes of rock'n'roll, rockabilly, folk and zydeco.
Paul Simon is a great song and style collector - taking from others, shaping to make his own; that's the way you are supposed to tailor and wear influences. His sleeves show of his travels, his great loves, the early immersion in the spiritual side of rock'n'roll and the poetry of folk.
For Dazzling Blue, the new album's third song, West African guitar meets clay-pot percussion - it's dizzyingly beautiful and feels like a rewrite of parts of Under African Skies and Born At The Right Time.
Speaking of rewrite, that's the name of the next song, Rewrite, which very cleverly tells the story of rewriting a story - of "working on my rewrite" - but is the rewrite actually the life story of the song's narrator? Is he choosing which parts to leave out as he reinvents himself late in life? It's Paul Simon at his masterful best as storytelling songwriter.
I've always had this thing for Paul Simon's lyrics - they're lyrics, crafted lyrics. It might seem stupid to go awarding Best Songwriter titles and recommendations, but he is surely one of the great post-war lyricists, leaving them wide open to interpretation, often dropping the listener right in to the song, slice-of-life style, as he tells it from the sidelines, like a great short-story writer. This album is full of opaque, beautiful, clever, crafted story-songs. In short, it's full of dazzling song-craft.
Listening to this album - as I have done repeatedly for the last month or so - really shows how low the standards have been set for what is considered a good song or a clever lyric. This album is just 10 songs long, less than 40 minutes in duration and it is packed with enough ideas to fuel several careers.
Love And Hard Times goes back to the Simon & Garfunkel of America and Leaves That Are Green stopping off via St. Judy's Comet. It's one of his perfect love songs.
I hadn't thought as much of Love Is Eternal Sacred Light early on. Not that this album contains any filler, but it had been lost, ever so slightly, in the middle of the album. Listening to the album while writing this post it's moving up towards being one of my favourites - in that way that songs on consistently great albums do, they shuffle and vie for pole position.
Amulet is the album's shortest song, less than two minutes of acoustic guitar. Simon might still get some grief for pinching a bunch of ideas from Martin Carthy back in the early/mid 1960s - but this shows a sound that Simon has developed as a much underrated guitarist.
Questions For The Angels sees the 69-year-old songwriter continuing one of the major themes of the album; looking spiritually at life/looking for spirituality in the afterlife. He also name-drops Jay-Z; you'll do a double-take the first time you hear it.
My favourite song on the album - and it has been since the second listen - is Love And Blessings. Again, as with The Afterlife, that subtly shuffling/shifting feel is magic; so hard to achieve but so effortless and so much a part of the signature sound of Paul Simon. It's also, rhythmically, melodically a collection of songs all boiled down in to one. It's as if the song was tugging and pulling in a couple of different directions; I like that Paul Simon knew enough to let it go where it wanted.
And then it's to the closing title song which almost strangles the listener with a whiplash guitar riff, never moving off in to melody, tattooing its imprint with repetition and showing elements of Cajun, country, rock and pop styles all in one.
So there are links to all of the songs there - you can have a listen; you can tell me I'm crazy for caring as much as I do about this album. But it's one that grows, and continues to grow; an album you will be grateful for spending time with. It feels like a true gift.
I'll not only call it my album of this year (so far) I consider it Paul Simon's greatest album. And I say that as a card-carrying fan; owner of everything he's produced.
So do you think it's So Beautiful or do you just think So What?
I have three copies of this album to giveaway (thanks again to Universal). I'm going to offer them in the usual way. There will be three questions and you can choose which one you want to answer. You can only answer one. If you answer any more than one you are disqualified.
Now let's see. The questions will be:
1. One of my all-time favourite drummers has worked extensively with Paul Simon. What is his name?
2. I said So Beautiful Or So What is my favourite Paul Simon album - and his best. But what used to be my favourite Paul Simon album?
3. Paul Simon had a girlfriend who was mentioned in one Simon & Garfunkel song, had one song named after her and inspired one of the duo's most famous hits. What was the women's name and what are the three songs?
Remember - you can only answer one. Good luck.
Postscript: While I'm gushing over all things Paul Simon, check out this clip. It's from his recent tour. A woman in the audience mentions that the song Duncan was her ticket to learning guitar. Watch what happens ... it's one of the best all-around feel-good moments I've seen involving live music.
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- (Live Matches)
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