Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What

In sixth grade, when I was about 11 years old, I used to spend a lot of time at my friend Luke’s house. His parents were more bohemian than mine (of course these things are relative in Cookeville, TN) and they were always playing old vinyl of ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriters.

Back then I was barely cognizant of music; I knew a few songs from the radio but had never particularly noticed any one artist. One of the first times a set of songs ever lured me in was when Luke’s parents played Simon & Garfunkel. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I’m pretty sure the first one to hook me was “Punky’s Dilemma.” Remember that one? “Wish I was a Kellogg’s Cornflake / floatin’ in my bowl takin’ movies.”

When I got to high school my friend Heath and I went through a year or two when we became positively obsessed and over time collected everything S&G or Paul Simon ever put out. (And kids, this was in a historical age called Before The Internet, back when collecting music actually took some effort and money.) At one point I could replicate every crowd noise on The Concert in Central Park, still for my money one of the finest live records ever.

Anyway, there is no musical artist who’s been with me longer and meant more to me than Paul Simon. His voice has got this haunting mix of sweetness and melancholy that I’ve never heard replicated. And there is no better songwriter in the pop music era — the guy’s got a catalog going back to the late ’60s and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single dud in it. His songs can stand on their own as poems, but when coupled with infectious melodies are the opposite of pretentious: they are homespun, anchored in the vagaries and heartbreaks of daily life.

I hate to be one of those “I like the old stuff” guys, but I’ll cop to the fact that my favorite Simon records are from the ’70s. There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is an exquisite, note-perfect masterpiece — “American Tune” is one of my top-five favorite songs ever, and if you check out the lyrics you’ll see it remains painfully relevant. “It’s all right, it’s all right / You can’t be forever blessed.”

Starting with 1986’s Graceland, Simon’s music turned from melody to rhythm, from simplicity to complexity, and from plainspoken poignancies to oblique imagery. The critics loved it and there’s no denying the albums from those years are fantastic, but I kinda miss the NYC street poet.

Simon’s new one — So Beautiful or So What, out Tuesday — is an interesting mix of the old and the new. African rhythms and instruments still weave in and out, but these are much more the simple story-songs of old than the multiculti-pop of later years. I love it, of course. I think I’m incapable of not loving it, just hearing the guy sing.

This is a sweet little ballad called “Questions for the Angels.”