- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What” (Concord Music Group)

For more than four decades, Paul Simon has written songs that transcend generation and genre. Classics like “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” have become part of life’s playlist. Aretha Franklin (and “Glee”) covered the latter; 1990s pop-punk band the Lemonheads found success with the former.

Now 69 years old and an undisputed master of his craft, Simon blends his musical and lyrical gifts with musings on life, love and God on his first new album in five years, “So Beautiful or So What.” The album sounds just like him _ bright guitars against a backdrop of world rhythms, reminiscent of “Graceland” or “Rhythm of the Saints” _ and the lyrics make it the perfect soundtrack for an existential crisis.

On the upbeat, Zydeco-flavored “The Afterlife,” Simon sings about his search for the divine.

“It seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek,” he sings. “You’ve got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.”

He inquires about life’s biggest mysteries _ “Who am I in this lonely world?” _ on the ethereal and quiet “Questions for the Angels.”

God and Jesus come to Earth in “Love and Hard Times” but abandon the place just as quickly, so instead Simon finds solace in a lover.

Love is a theme throughout “So Beautiful,” and Simon defines it on “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” an electric-guitar romp punctuated by harmonica, congas and cymbals: “Love is eternal sacred light/Free from the shackles of time. Evil is darkness, sight without sight/A demon that feeds on the mind.”

In “Love & Blessings,” the emotion, along with kindness, “fell like rain on thirsty land.”

Elvis Costello, who wrote the liner notes, says Simon is “a man in full possession of all his gifts looking at the comedy and beauty of life with clarity and the tenderness bought by time.”

Simon concludes on the title track that “life is what you make of it/so beautiful or so what.”

CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: The hopeful opening track, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” features samples from a 1941 sermon by Atlanta pastor the Rev. J.M. Gates.