Paul Simon has a voice that’s most prominently characterized by its smoothness, like a stone that’s rested in a riverbed long enough for the current to scour its face free of any irregularities.
It just takes the edge off — like a muscle relaxer, a glass of wine or a warm bath — but then his words sharpen things to a fine point.
"Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant," he sings on the title track to his latest disc, "So Beautiful or So What." "How we seek out bad advice / How we jigger it and figure it / Mistaking value for the price / And play a game with time and love / Like a pair of rolling dice."
Fate casts a long shadow over "Beautiful," providing a few patches of shade on an otherwise sun-kissed record.
"I’m just a raindrop in a bucket / A coin dropped in a slot," Simon sings on the same song. "I am an empty house on Weed Street / Across the round from a vacant lot / You know that life is what you make of it."
That last line is the album’s prevailing sentiment.
On "Rewrite," a spry, bubbling pop daydream brightened by glass harp and whistles, Simon plays the role of a man determined to recast his position in life, even at an advanced age.
"I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right," he sings. "I’m gonna change the ending / Gonna throw away my title."
Is Simon attempting to do the same here?
Not really, but he embraces the possibility — and possibility has long loomed large in Simon’s works.
You could say that he’s perfected the art of growing old gracefully, though, seeing as how a sense of grace has long colored his material, that would seem a little redundant.
Simon seems so at ease, so comfortable on "So Beautiful or So What," a superb album that ranks among the finest of his latter-day works.
It’s a record that bears some touchstones to the past — namely, the touches of West African rhythms and vocals that enlivened "Graceland" and "Rhythm of the Saints."
But the disc also further embellishes the more exploratory feel of Simon’s previous solo disc, 2006’s "Surprise," which he recorded with forward-thinking producer Brian Eno, burnishing Simon’s papier-mache folk with looped guitars and occasional samples, making "Beautiful" feel both fresh and a little familiar at once, especially on songs such as "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light," a harmonica-laced foot stomp with an electronic intro that interweaves conga and glockenspiel in a warm blanket of sound.
Sonics aside, above all else, "Beautiful" is a spiritually informed record, one that ponders the afterlife with a wink while professing a belief in angels.
Simon’s adept at making such weighty themes feel almost whimsical.
Life and death, love and loss, good and evil — they’re all just grist for a good melody.
"The trick is, as I know it, is to care like hell and not give a damn at the same time," Simon says of his songwriting in the album’s liner notes.
It’s a balancing act, though to Simon’s credit, it never feels like an act at all.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.Preview
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