Paul Simon has been kind of quiet lately, in more ways than one. He records only sporadically, going anywhere from five to 10 years between albums, and his most recent records—You’re the One in 2000 and Surprise in 2006—were relatively low-key affairs. Even their experiments (most notably Brian Eno’s electronic atmospherics on Surprise) were laid-back. So Beautiful or So What isn’t exactly a rejuvenation, but it is in many places sprightlier than those albums, revisiting musical sources that have enlivened Simon in the past: doo-wop, gospel, Afropop. And it includes at least a handful of tunes that will sit comfortably in his extensive pantheon of classic pop. There is, for example, “Afterlife,” which imagines a purgatory-as-bureaucracy and features a bouncy, memorable refrain: “You’ve got to fill out a form first/And wait in a line.” The loping “Rewrite” playfully extends the metaphor of its title to the possibility of self-reinvention.
Throughout, Simon seems fixed on a few ideas: the challenges and rewards of love (the word figures in three song titles, including “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”); the unknowability of the divine (he invokes God, Jesus, and angels, but not with much more than a shrug); and, befitting a man who will turn 70 this year, the ephemeral nature of it all. As the title track (another standout) puts it, “Life is what we make of it/So beautiful or so what.” The album’s ballads as a whole don’t distinguish themselves, and nothing about it feels like a major work. But Simon sounds terrific, his tender deadpan delivery as soulful as ever. And it’s nice to hear from him.