This is one of two albums to make this year’s top ten that were actually released in 2011. That’s pretty unusual for me, I am usually at least a few years behind the curve. More typically for me, it’s the 2011 album by someone who’s been releasing records for more than half a century. (Back in April, I wrote about this album’s stupid staggered release schedule.)
Paul Simon is a genus, it’s a simple as that. If I don’t mention him as much as newer discoveries like Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, it’s because I have been so intimately familiar with his catalogue for so long that I’ve run out of new things to say about him that I haven’t already said many times to my friends. His music covers an astonishing stylistic range, from the simplest three-chord blues through the most sophisticated jazz ballads, via every kind of folk music, a Broadway musical, a film soundtrack and of course the South African and South American-influenced music that younger fans (by which I mean people in their forties) are likely most familiar with.
Every new Paul Simon album is an occasion for rejoicing, and it’s to his credit that at the age of seventy he is still cranking them out (albeit less frequently than he did back in the 60s and 70s). 2011’s offering, So Beautiful or So What, offers ten very different songs. They constitute a sequence of meditations on life, love, religion and philosophy, leading to the stark choice presented by the title track: two different ways to respond to the universe.
From an album that covers as much musical ground as this, it’s not really possible to choose any one song as representative. The one I’ve picked out, Rewrite, uses the conceit of a man revising his novel’s manuscript as a metaphor for all the changes he wishes he could make to all the bad choices of his earlier life. Typically for Simon, this is done with a light touch, against an idiosyncratic musical backdrop that somehow contrives to simultaneously be both sparse and rhythmically dense.