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Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What
As one of the most iconic American singer-songwriters of the 21st century, Paul Simon has influenced generations of singers and listeners with his fusion of folk, pop and world music, as well as his charming, relatable lyrics. Furthermore, his twenty-year partnership with singer Art Garfunkel as Simon & Garfunkel produced some of the greatest American songs of all time, such as ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’, ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and ‘The Sound of Silence’.
His 1986 album Graceland was arguably the highlight of his solo career, where Simon combined South African township music with his trademark all-American lyrics. Featuring duos with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba, some of the greatest African singers of the time, Graceland was a goldmine with hits like 'You Can Call Me Al’ and ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’.
Gushing aside, his 2011 album So Beautiful So What is his twelfth record and marks a return to the spirit of Graceland with his fusion of world music including Indian percussions, South African melodies and Graceland-influenced guitar riffs. This may be Simon’s most spiritual album yet, where he tackles mortality, faith and the afterlife; all signs of his increasing age (a sobering 69) and wisdom.
On ‘The Afterlife’ Simon sings ‘After I died/ And the makeup had dried/ I went back to my place’: he tackles the sombre life-after-death question with charm, wit and a light-hearted tale of the bureaucracy of waiting at the gates of heaven (‘You got to fill out a form first/ And then you wait in the line’).
‘Dazzling Blue’ combines country folk with an Indian tabla and melodies, including an Indian vocalist that opens the song with a rhythm that he chants, reminiscent of John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussein. The lyrics are tender and whimsical, as he sings of a simple but sweet day at the beach.
On ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’ Simon samples a 1940s preacher’s sermon that is interjected with his audience’s yeahs and the catchy melody as he sings of the thin hope that preserves with every Christmas as families hope for the return of their soldiers from the War in Iraq.
‘Amulet’ is a quiet display of Simon’s mastery as an understated guitarist and a sweet intermission between the lyrically ingenious tracks. The rest of the album’s tracks, such as ‘Love and Blessings’, will wash over you like a warm ray of sun.
If you’re familiar with the music of Paul Simon or if you enjoy folk and world music, then So Beautiful So What will appeal to you. It’s a subdued album but full of technical artistry, great fusion of different music genres and brilliant lyrics that take a few listens to grasp the genius of their charm.
One of the shortest tracks on the album is ‘DMT Song’. Created with the help of bassist/vocalist, Thundercat, it is the most vocally dense song on the record. Slow and dreamy, with high-pitched, slightly dissonant, vocals, it's a good intro to the next track, ‘The Nightcaller’. Aptly titled, this song features a groovy dance bass underneath a synthesizer melody that sounds ideal for waving your arms around on the dance floor.
‘Getting There’, with vocals by Niki Randa, is reminiscent of Massive Attack. Not only because of the elongated vocals, but the muffled bass beat and dreamy bell sounds could certainly also have spawned from the brains of 3D and Daddy G. The same goes for ‘Hunger’; a song that sounds like it was recorded underwater and also features Randa. Its spacious melody is broken up by a bridge with echoing vocals and harpsichord-like keyboards.
Erykah Badu is the only vocalist to appear on the album that Flying Lotus hasn’t worked with previously. Her vocals work really well on the African sounding track ‘See Thru To U’ - hopefully, Badu will become incorporated into Ellison’s fixed team of vocalists.
‘Putty Boy Strut’ sounds like a broken toy gone mental, with a catchy musical theme that returns in the deeper layers of ‘Me Yesterday/Corded’.
‘Electric Candyman’ features vocals by Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, and is a slow track with male and female vocal melodies mixed together in a way that almost sounds disorienting. Yorke’s voice is hardly recognisable, which seems like a waste considering his great, and highly distinguishable, vocal abilities.
You can almost guarantee that any musician hailing from a landscape filled with towering trees and sprawling mountains will incorporate that beauty into their sound. The United State’s Appalachian range is home to many folk musicians from decades back until present day that do just that.
From Vermont, Anais Mitchell is a young, vibrant lady who no doubt has spent many-a-night in a vast, open field somewhere. Mitchell is a storyteller accompanied by a naturally gritty tone and simple strum of the guitar that has ‘folk’ written all over it.
With a few EP’s behind her, Mitchell’s first full-length album Hadestown was released in 2010 - the concept weaving mythology into a grander portrayal of life and love. The album functions as a folk opera of sorts which includes theatric vocals and guest appearances by Tom Waits and Ani DeFranco; a quirky, yet beautiful little party in and of itself.
After knowing Anais based on Hadestown alone though, we couldn’t paint a picture of what her forthcoming music would sound like. Released just a few months ago, Young Man in America is missing the fun factor of Hadestown but brings with it a stripped-down Anais Mitchell.
Just as honest and emotive as before, Mitchell taps into the consciousness of modern-day America with a mystical undertone and a more serious approach. Be prepared for eleven tracks filled with pensiveness and a decent dash of sadness.
The title track isn’t subtle about it either: ‘There’s a hollow in my bones/ makin’ me cry and carry on’ – thankfully however, a mandolin and tambourine balance out the depressive lyrics; making everything right in the world.
The following track ‘Coming Down’ is a sombre and exquisite piano number with harmonies that follow suit.
‘Venus’ takes flight into the ether for a lovely two minutes and 22 seconds. Mitchell displays her cosmic sensibilities with this upbeat, harmonica-laden tune and fair warning: awfully catchy melody. Watch out.
‘Ships’ is the closing track on the album and it takes us through a story of love and leaving - being instrumentally rich and ghostly in its vocals.
Casting aside any exaggeration, Young Man in America is not completely soaking in sorrow, however it does quite poignantly describe the social condition that many of us come to face. Isn’t that what folk music has always done, though?