Uncut Music Award 2011: Paul Simon, "So Beautiful Or So What"

John Mulvey

This morning, a look at what the Uncut Music Award judges said about Paul Simon's "So Beautiful Or So What".

Allan Jones: For me, this album was a reminder of Paul Simon’s genius, which is often overlooked. He seems to go through periods where his back catalogue is forgotten, his contribution to pop music overlooked, and I think this was a very wise, witty album, musically inventive, a late career masterpiece on a par with anything Dylan’s done at a similar age.

Stewart Lee: I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, it really took me by surprise. For the first three or four tracks I was mentally re-arranging the whole way I was going to vote on these albums, but then I kind of got used to it and felt that it didn’t maintain the initial shock and surprise. I also got bit irked with him in interviews when it came out, saying it was unfair how he hadn’t been recognised in the same way that Bob Dylan has. But it’s a good, grown-up New York record.

Nick Stewart: I regard Paul Simon as being up there not just with Bob Dylan but the likes of Rodgers & Hart, I think he’s a fantastic songwriter. Parts of this record are just absolutely glorious. Full marks for it making the Uncut long list in the first place, because could easily have been overlooked. I agree with Stewart, it does wind down a bit after a while, but if it wasn’t by Paul Simon, if it was by Nick Stewart, you’d be hailing it as a masterpiece, but the bar is so high with Paul Simon you can’t help but end up comparing it with Graceland or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. It made me go back and listen to that stuff again. The man is a genius, and this is a good Paul Simon album – I don’t think it’s a great one. In the context of this award, however, it should feature quite high up.

Mark Cooper: I think Paul Simon can do things that no-one else can do. A song like “Questions For The Angels” is like a Wim Wenders movie or something. He can be a Brooklyn wiseguy and a metaphysician at the same time; he’s the ultimate post-modern artist, yet at the heart of that there’s this alienated New York guy searching for the truth. I think this album pulls everything together from his journey, and probably his best record since Graceland.

Phil Manzanera: It ticks all the good points you associate with Paul Simon, although by the time I got to the fifth track I felt I’d heard it all before, better versions of each song somewhere else in his back catalogue over the last 40 years. But, as has already been said, it’s probably that bar has been set so high with the amazing songs of his past. I love the playing on it, the way he moves rhythms around, and the musicians he chooses are always the best at what they do – you’ve got to be shit hot to play with Paul Simon. I did enjoy it a lot, actually.

Tony Wadsworth: I just think he’s extraordinary. Once I was given the shortlist for this award, I ended up comparing each record to this album to see whether they stood up, and for me none of them did. It is peerless. It’s like Nick was saying, if this was a fresh young artist who’d come from nowhere there would be no question about giving him the award. The craftsmanship, the playing, the experimentation where he’s sampling the old gospel stuff, it’s all amazing.

The lyrics are as good as anything Randy Newman does in their conciseness, and they’re very emotional. It’s a guy talking towards the end of his life – some of the songs have actually got God as the narrator, which you might worry about with some people, but not with him. He makes it very amusing, you’re never quite sure who’s god it is. I think it’s an extraordinary piece of work.

Linda Thompson: There isn’t a crotchet or a quaver of Paul Simon’s music I don’t know. He’s an extremely underrated guitar player, he’s a fantastic acoustic player. This is a great, great record. It’s hard to be relevant when you’re old, and he’s done so well to remain relevant. He’s very academic, there’s no getting round that, I think he’s much more academic than he is emotional.

Tony Wadsworth: But why does he continue to get you right there?

Allan Jones: He does, time and time again on this record.

Linda Thompson: That’s true, I think he’s finally showing some emotion. And what about his singing, for a man who’s 70? He’s singing so, so well.

Mark Cooper: He is right in his sense that he’s underrated, that time hasn’t been quite as fair to his canon as it has to Dylan’s.

Allan Jones: I think part of it, crudely put, is that he was never very cool. But he’s totally fascinating. I did an interview with him for an Uncut cover story and he was so articulate about every aspect of his music, but not in a kind of pedestrian way, just totally fucking illuminating. One question I asked him, which was kind of a minor detail, when I transcribed his reply it came to a thousand words, and every sentence was perfectly formed. It was just extraordinary.


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