When Paul Simon began working on a new batch of songs early last year, he flashed back to his previous disc, 2006's Surprise — and realized his favorite part of that sonically dense collaboration with Brian Eno was one melodic chord sequence. "I said, 'That's the part I liked the best out of all of it,'" he recalls, "'so maybe I'll go and do a thing I haven't done in 20-odd years, which is sit in a room and write.'"
Setting up in a cottage next to his house in Connecticut, Simon began crafting songs built around what he calls "interesting harmony and structure" instead of beats, as he's done for the past 25 years. Those songs will emerge in April, on Simon's 12th studio album, So Beautiful Or So What. "Since Graceland, I've always made the record based on either making the tracks or the percussion first," he says. "This time, the stimuli was a guitar in my lap. That takes me back to 'Still Crazy After All These Years' or 'Something So Right,' those more complicated ballads."
Working with producer Phil Ramone, who recorded Simon's classic Seventies albums, he began casually cutting the songs in the cottage, which houses all of Simon's guitars and home-recording gear. The resulting "meticulous demos," in Simon's words, form a standout disc that blends the emotional and musical directness of his early solo LPs with a surprising dose of social commentary. "Love and Hard Times" and "Questions for the Angels" are luminous story-songs about people searching for meaning in a confused world (the latter mentions Jay-Z); other tunes reference a nephew serving in Iraq (the deceptively bouncy single "Getting Ready for Christmas Day"), Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination (the jittery title track), and a Vietnam vet working at a car wash ("Rewrite"). "I don't set out with a message," Simon says. "It just comes out that way."
Throughout the album, the focus stays on Simon's intricate guitar chords and still-supple voice (at 69, he says he no longer smokes or drinks, and he even quit coffee). But in keeping with Simon's musical eclecticism, he and Ramone spent more than a year tinkering with the tracks with a small team of collaborators including longtime Simon guitarist Vincent Nguini and world-music percussionist Steve Shehan, who has worked with Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver's Indian percussion and Southern-gospel harmonies were added onto "Dazzling Blue." Elsewhere, Simon's wife, Edie Brickell, and teenage daughter Lulu contributed harmonies.
The lyrically and musically complex "Love and Hard Times," which opens with Simon's voice and piano and ends with a swelling string section, took more than a year to complete. Simon even dabbled in sampling for the first time, incorporating a bit of a Sonny Terry harmonica part in "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light." "From working with Paul in the past, we all got to learn that just because something is great at that moment doesn't mean it's going to last," Ramone says. "But what I love about working with Paul is that no doors are closed — none. Adventure is OK with him."
The album reminds Simon of his first, sparsely produced solo disc, 1972's Paul Simon, which has been rediscovered in indie-rock circles: Spoon and Grizzly Bear have both covered songs from it, and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig just cut "Papa Hobo" for the soundtrack to an upcoming Uma Thurman film, Ceremony.
Grizzly Bear drummer Chris Bear, whose band joined Simon at a Brooklyn Academy of Music show in 2009, pitched in on the new LP with a few electronic drum parts. "It seems quite natural to me," Simon says about being embraced by the new generation of indie-rock acts. "There's always a fascination with returning to songwriting. In a way, my record sounds like an indie record."
Simon himself is now an indie act: After 30 years with Warner Bros., he self-financed the sessions for So Beautiful and then inked a deal with Concord Music Group. To promote the disc, Simon is gearing up for spring and summer shows that he hopes will include rarely heard songs such as "Peace Like a River" (from Paul Simon) and "Crazy Love Vol. II" (Graceland). In the meantime, Simon and Art Garfunkel's recently canceled summer tour is still off the table, due to Garfunkel's ongoing recovery from vocal-cord paresis. "I'd like to sing with Artie one more time, but that's down the road," Simon says. "I'm focused on this album and this band. It's my kind of rock & roll."