So Beautiful or So What

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So Beautiful or So What
Studio album by Paul Simon
Released April 8, 2011
Recorded 2010–11[1]
Genre Folk rock[2]
Length 38:15
Label Hear Music
Producer Phil Ramone, Paul Simon
Paul Simon chronology
So Beautiful or So What
Singles from So Beautiful or So What
  1. "Getting Ready for Christmas Day"
    Released: November 22, 2010
  2. "The Afterlife"
    Released: February 25, 2011

So Beautiful or So What is the twelfth studio album by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Produced by Simon and Phil Ramone, the album released on April 8, 2011 by Hear Music. Following his collaboration with producer Brian Eno for Surprise (2006), Paul Simon began writing new music and introduced several songs gradually as the decade closed. Having experimented with rhythm-based textures for much of the previous two decades, Simon returned to composing songs rather traditionally using only his acoustic guitar. These songs were further augmented by experimental recording practices in the studio. The album marks his fifth and final album produced by Phil Ramone.

The album was largely recorded in a small cottage at Simon's property in New Canaan, Connecticut. The record contains West African blues-inspired guitar playing, Indian-style percussion, and experimentation with samples. These samples range wildly, from a 1941 sermon to nighttime ambience in Kenya. Musically, the album contains a lack of bass in most songs and a very large presence of bells. Much of Simon's lyricism on the album revolves around spirituality and mortality, a fact noted by music writers. Simon stated that this was unintentional, and came about naturally in his songwriting process.

Upon its release, So Beautiful or So What received universal acclaim from music critics, who praised Simon's themes and songwriting. Many considered it his best work in two decades, and it was included on many end-of-the-year lists as one of the best albums of the year. It became his highest US chart debut and charted within the top 10 in nine other countries.


The reunion with producer Phil Ramone came very casually; Simon told Ramone when they came upon each other that he was beginning to work on a new album and, as Ramone lived only one town away, they decided it would be easy to work together again.[3]

Recording and production[edit]

Phil Ramone (pictured in 2009), who co-produced the album

The recording process originated from a small cottage at Simon’s property in New Canaan, Connecticut. The recording sessions often consisted solely of Simon, Ramone, and engineer Andy Smith. Throughout the production of the record, the album’s engineers would gradually make upgrades to the space during months off. As it was not acoustically designed or soundproofed, Smith often employed iZotope RX software to rid the recordings of extra noise, such as an oak tree above the home from which acorns fell, interrupting recordings.[4] In the end, keeping in line with his experimentalist attitude, Simon decided to record the acorns, remarking, "All sounds are musical once you start to listen."[5] Occasionally, Simon would record in the control room instead.[4] Much like all of Simon’s output from his 1997 effort Songs from The Capeman onward, the album was recorded digitally using Pro Tools.[4]

Much time was centered on getting guitars to sound as Simon preferred. A small bit of experimentation among the additional session players occurred, from which Simon would edit himself, compiling them together or often deleting them altogether.[4] Many songs were recorded with a hand-built cigar-box guitar, which Simon bought from Mississippi blues musician Super Chikan.[6] Analogue effects were applied before recording digitally to keep mixes simple; this method also inspired Simon while arranging the songs.[4] Smith would burn Simon a compact disc each evening of the day’s session, and he would return the next day with notes on the recordings.[4] As such, mixes were created as the album went along, rather than at the end of the process. Simon and Ramone would often listen to their recordings while driving around, noting what would need changes.[4]

The entire process lasted over a year.[7] Additional recording took place at Simon’s summer home in Long Island, but less so than his previous efforts. Home recording, as Ramone told Sound on Sound shortly after the album’s release, required a certain discipline. Simon would often arrive in the morning and recording until nightfall.[4] Percussion and vocals were overdubbed at Germano Studios. The Indian ensemble on "Dazzling Blue" was recorded at Clinton Studios in New York, while a bluegrass ensemble was cut at Tony Bennett’s New Jersey studio.[4] Simon’s wife, Edie Brickell, and his teenage daughter Lulu contributed harmonies, while Chris Bear of indie rock band Grizzly Bear contributed electronic drum parts to the album.[7]

Simon self-financed the recording after being released from his 30-year recording contract with Warner Bros. After the sessions were completed, he inked a deal with Concord Music Group to distribute the album.[7] In reference to the album, Simon said, "It's the best work I've done in 20 years."[8]

Music and lyrics[edit]

Simon (pictured in 2011) composed the album's songs using only his guitar.

So Beautiful or So What finds Simon returning to more harmonic-based compositions than rhythm-based. This was spurred from when he realized his favorite song on his 2006 effort Surprise, "Everything About It Is a Love Song", contained a chord progression he found particularly interesting.[5][6] After coming to this realization, he focused on the album’s three ballads, "Questions for the Angels", "Amulet", and "Love and Hard Times".[5] Unlike his previous rhythm-based albums, in which he would gain inspiration for his guitar parts from pre-recorded backing tracks, Simon took a more traditional approach to building the songs on So Beautiful or So What. He would write songs at home, fleshing them out in the studio with help of a natural click track, such as "a percussion instrument, or even just tapping out a rhythm on his guitar."[4] Afterwards, he would overdub more elements, including additional guitar parts and percussion. Simon began envisioning the album’s sequencing when he only had a few songs written, letting it inform his songwriting.[4]

The album is inspired by West African blues, combining that with "Indian drumming, Old Hollywood strings and bluegrass harmony singing."[5] Its music employs a wide variety of samples, including from older blues and gospel recordings.[6] "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" contains a harmonica sample from Sonny Terry, and "Love and Blessings" lifts from The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.[3] Simon did not want to record an ordinary studio album and instead, according to Ramone, wanted "lots of space with lots of atmosphere and feeling ... Rather than go for hugely orchestrated ideas he was going, for example, for overtones in bells and gongs. Or if a sax or a kora comes in, they're there to do something specific, and not to fill in the space."[4] The album's music is also largely devoid of heavy bass (some tracks actually using a baritone guitar instead), and drums are very quiet and reserved. Smith said percussion instruments, including exotic bells, ancient hand bells, and glockenspiels, were Simon's favorite to record with for the album.[4] In using bells to augment the sound, Simon put them behind certain guitar notes to “highlight” the sound, as he wanted the recordings to be devoid of echo; he found that using bells created only a slight echo, with an odd, atmospheric tone that he preferred.[9] Drummer Jim Oblon placed towels over each drums to emphasize the higher-frequency percussive instruments.[4]

The songs on So Beautiful or So What touch on subjects such as love, mortality, and faith.[5] In terms of songwriting, Simon did not approach each new song with a theme, he let them evolve naturally from the first line he would compose.[10] Simon had no plan to pursue religious writing, but it ended up particularly strong in the album’s lyrics.[11] He noted that "five of the first six" songs he wrote touched on themes of God: "I wondered whether there was a subconscious theme that I was tapping into. I have used Christian symbols and imagery before in songs. It’s very strongly evocative, so it may just be coincidence—but it may not be."[6] The A.V. Club suggested that the album's gospel influence inspired the touch of humor when discussing dark subjects such as death.[9] In an interview with PBS, Simon clarified his religious views:

"Getting Ready for Christmas Day" was one of the album’s earliest completed songs, and it contains a sample from a 1941 sermon by the Reverend J.M. Gates.[4] The sermon inspired the song’s creation, with a certain rhythmic tone to his oration that interested him. Simon heard the sermon on a box set titled Goodbye Babylon, which consists early 20th century Americana.[3] It came together quicker than other songs, with Simon recording his guitar live.[4] The track also references his nephew, who served multiple tours in the Iraq War.[11] "The Afterlife" concerns a man dying and getting to heaven, where he waits in line to meet with God, where everyone is "filling out forms and waiting in line to catch 'a glimpse of the divine.'"[5] While in line, he unsuccessfully hits on a woman. When he finally meets God, he is taken aback, and can only spout gibberish.[12] The point of the song is that having questions for God would cease to be relevant if one were to confront God face-to-face due the enormity of such a theoretical situation.[3]

"Dazzling Blue" is completely based on his relationship with wife Edie Brickell, and the title references her favorite color.[12] Simon said the song reminded him of his work when he was in Simon & Garfunkel.[9] "Rewrite" features segments of recordings made on a small digital recorder by Brickell on a 2009 family trip together in Kenya.[12] Simon was frustrated over guitar tone in his song and attached the sound of a wildebeest to a certain guitar note each time it occurred, in an effort to create an interesting sound. In addition, the song contains nighttime ambience from the trip.[5] The song’s subject matter concerns a burned out Vietnam veteran imagining that he could rewrite his life, in order to give it a happy ending.[3] In "Rewrite", Simon taps on his guitar to invite the tempo.[4] "Love and Hard Times" is an affirmation of love for his wife, Edie Brickell. The beginning of the song references “God and his only son” visiting Earth. Simon noted that the song’s thesis is being thankful at the highest level, and using God was being specific.[10] The track contains orchestral arrangement from Gil Goldstein, which was recorded at Avatar Studios, as Ramone wanted a larger room to record in.[4]

"Questions for the Angels" includes a reference to hip hop mogul Jay-Z. The inclusion stems from a billboard featuring the musician that was present over the Brooklyn Bridge for a time. Simon mentioned that he would pass it on his way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music when they were holding a month-long celebration of his music in April 2008.[13][14] Simon included the line to create a sharp transition from angels in Heaven to a downtown Brooklyn street.[9] "So Beautiful or So What" contains what Simon once admitted is "one of [his] favorite Bo Diddley rhythms," and the song’s title references Miles Davis's "So What".[12] The title is a question Simon envisioned when facing the enormity of the infinite. The song almost became a collaboration with Bob Dylan; Simon felt two verses might be nice for him and sent him a message through their mutual manager. Although Dylan said that he liked the song, Simon did not hear back in sufficient time, as the album was on a deadline.[15]

Release and reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 4.5/5 stars[16]
The A.V. Club A–[17]
The Daily Telegraph 5/5 stars[18]
The Guardian 4/5 stars[19]
The Independent 3/5 stars[20]
MSN Music A[2]
The Observer 4/5 stars[21]
Rolling Stone 4/5 stars[22]
The Times 4/5 stars[23]
Uncut 4/5 stars[24]

Many songs on the album were available in various forms prior to their release on So Beautiful or So What. "Rewrite" and "Love and Hard Times" appeared his Simon’s 2008 book Lyrics; 1964-2008, and "Questions for the Angels" appeared on the 2009 Starbucks compilation This Better Be Good.[9] The first single, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day", premiered on National Public Radio on November 16, 2010.[25] On Tuesday, April 5, 2011, So Beautiful or So What was made fully streamable on the album's website, for the week preceding its official release.[26] When the album was released in the US, it debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 and sold 68,000 copies in its first week.[27] It was Simon's highest chart debut on the chart,[27] and by October 2011, it had sold 254,000 copies in the US.[1] In the United Kingdom, the album debuted at number six on the UK Albums Chart, selling 21,993 copies in its first week. The album's charting gave Simon his ninth top-ten solo album in the UK.[28]

So Beautiful or So What received widespread acclaim from critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 85, based on 27 reviews.[29] Many critics compared its diverse influences to Simon's style on his 1986 album Graceland.[6] In a review for AllMusic, senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said the music is not only focused but "vivid, vibrant, and current in a way none of [Simon's] peers have managed to achieve".[16] Los Angeles Times writer Margaret Wappler praised its "multiethnic landscape" of American folk and Afropop influences on an album that is his best since 1990's Rhythm of the Saints.[30] In The New York Times, Jon Pareles took note of Simon's lyrics: "Sketches of individuals and moments are intertwined with grander pronouncements; unforced humor tempers gloomier reflections".[31] Will Hodgkinson from The Times believed his meditations on the afterlife are informed by both youthful enthusiasm and the wisdom of old age,[23] while The Guardian‍ '​s Maddy Costa said Simon "finds an answer to the ineffable in song".[19]

Many critics noticed the rather overt religious symbolism in Simon's lyrics; one blogger facetiously called it the year's best Christian music album.[10] Writing for MSN Music, Robert Christgau found Simon's usual folk rock "graced with global colors that sound as natural" as his guitar and said his lyrics are imbued with gratitude for his wife's love and God, although he disagreed with Simon's view of God's benevolent nature.[2] In a more critical review, Andy Gill of The Independent felt the music is Simon's usual cross-genre style but that his ruminations on love, age, and mortality seem trivial.[20] Pitchfork Media's Stephen M. Deusner wrote that it "can be stodgy in its emotions and a bit too devoted to its motifs".[32] At the end of 2011, So Beautiful or So What was voted the 14th best album of the year in The Village Voice‍ '​s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll.[33] In their year-end lists, it was also ranked 2nd best by Christgau,[34] 3rd best by Rolling Stone,[35] and 15th best by Mojo.[36]

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by Paul Simon.

  1. "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" – 4:06
  2. "The Afterlife" – 3:40
  3. "Dazzling Blue" – 4:32
  4. "Rewrite" – 3:49
  5. "Love and Hard Times" – 4:09
  6. "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" – 4:02
  7. "Amulet" – 1:36
  8. "Questions for the Angels" – 3:49
  9. "Love & Blessings" – 4:18
  10. "So Beautiful or So What" – 4:07
  11. "So Beautiful or So What (Live Rehearsal Version)" – 4:10 [Download-only bonus track available on vinyl edition]
Deluxe Edition DVD
  1. "The Making of So Beautiful or So What"
  2. "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" (Music Video)
  3. "So Beautiful or So What" (Live Recording)
  • "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" contains excerpts from the 1941 sermon of the same name by Reverend J. M. Gates with congregation.
  • "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" contains excerpts from "Train Whistle Blues".
  • "Love and Blessings" contains excerpts from "Golden Gate Gospel Train", recorded by The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in 1938.


Credits are adapted from AllMusic.[37]


Release history[edit]

Region Date
Australia[62] April 8, 2011
Denmark[65] April 11, 2011
Italy[67] April 12, 2011
United States[68]
Japan[69] April 20, 2011
Ireland[70] June 10, 2011
United Kingdom[71] June 13, 2011


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External links[edit]