On "The Afterlife," an African-pop-flavored standout from his 12th solo album, Paul Simon describes the wait at the Pearly Gates like it's a trip to traffic court, all long lines, mumbled excuses and jokey asides. (The narrator even tries to pick up a woman while killing time.) But underneath the mischief are serious concerns. "It seems like our fate/To suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek," Simon sings amid a sharply syncopated groove and heavenly electric riffs. "The Afterlife" resolves darkness and light with a tossed-off charm — a specialty of New York poets from Frank O'Hara to Biggie Smalls, including Paul Simon. Simon's first album in five years is full of heavy business: life's meaning, beauty, brutality and brevity. Simon is pushing 70; it's appropriate that he's got mortality on his mind. But the songs rarely feel heavy. Instead, they combine the freewheeling folk of 1972's Paul Simon with the brilliant studio sculpting of Graceland. It's his best album since 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints, and it also sums up much of what makes Simon great.
The world-music fusions on So Beautiful or So What sound as matter-of-fact as ever, common tongues of a polyglot modern world. On "Rewrite," about a Vietnam vet working at a car wash while revising either a screenplay or his own haunted memory, Simon trades virtuoso lines on acoustic guitar with the kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko (who politely declines to outshine him; 21 strings versus six strings is an unfair contest) in what could be an afternoon jam session in Washington Square Park. "Dazzling Blue" feels just as organic, combining country-folk melodies with South Indian percussion in a love song about driving out to the beach on Long Island.
So Beautiful or So What is old-fashioned in its brevity (10 songs, 38 minutes) and vivid in its storytelling. On "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light," a roadhouse-blues jam that rides a ghostly techno pulse, a character who appears to be the Almighty (in one of a few album appearances) bitches while driving "a pre-owned '96 Ford" down the highway: "Check out the radio/Pop-music station/That don't sound like my music to me." Yeah, yeah: Everyone's a critic.
But Simon's reveries come through a lens of the present. "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" dialogues with history by sampling a 1941 sermon about mortality by preacher Rev. J.M. Gates, whose words pop up between Simon's rhymes about a kid in Iraq returned for a third tour of duty. As collage pop goes, it ain't Girl Talk. But it's unsettling in a modern, Internet-time-warp way, like PJ Harvey's "Written on the Forehead" — another recent song about war and human folly repeating itself, over and over again, in an endless loop.
Ultimately, So Beautiful or So What is a spiritual meditation that can't answer the big questions: Does God exist in a world of pain and inequality? Is there an afterlife? All Simon seems to know for sure is that there is love, and there is beauty — and that, afterlife or no, great songs live forever.