Since his 1986 blockbuster Graceland, Paul Simon has been writing songs the same way an MC pens rhymes — to beats or to nearly finished tracks. So Beautiful or So What flips that script. Its foundation is the veteran singer-songwriter's finely tuned melodies, his intricate guitar licks and his knack for seamlessly merging personal and sociological commentary.
More than anything, So Beautiful feels and sounds like a Paul Simon album. This nearly-native New Yorker has always been the most cosmopolitan and often the most experimental of his generation's marquee singer-songwriters: As far back as Simon & Garfunkel's 1970 swan song Bridge Over Troubled Water, he was constructing rhythms from tape loops ("Cecilia") and singing over indigenous recordings ("El Condor Pasa [If I Could]"). Looking to the past and the future, the East and the West, So Beautiful's 10 tracks present themselves as a grand statement on life in the 21st century, even as it contemplates the afterlife. Despite its organic origins, at times, it resembles the highly-percussive Graceland; it's got rippling guitars courtesy of Cameroonian musician Vincent Nguini, and kora, the West African harp. There are bluegrass flavors from renown dobro/pedal steel player Mark Stewart, Indian tabla and bansuri, gospel samples, sweet string arrangements and a few intricate harmonies that recall his days with Art Garfunkel. And although it reunites Simon with mega-producer Phil Ramone, who produced Simon's smashes in the '70s, his 11th solo album at times also suggests indie rock — particularly the music of Grizzly Bear, whose drummer Chris Bear provides the electronic introduction to "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light."
Despite its exotic trimmings, So Beautiful is an album rooted in everyday experience — the overworked and underpaid fellow worried about holiday bills in album opener "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," the guy sweating it out at the car wash in "Rewrite," while revising the script of his own unwieldy life in the hopes that Hollywood will one day come calling. And though there's the possibility that this could be Simon's final statement (it's written from the perspective of a man who'll turn 70 this October), there's a light, playful touch throughout. By returning to his roots — folk song structures, written on guitar — Simon seems liberated once again.