LISTEN IN: Simon’s latest work poignant but not sentimental

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, April 16, 2011

Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What” is a poignant take on life and mortality, but don’t call it somber or sentimental.

“So Beautiful or So What”

by Paul Simon 4.2 of 5

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On his first album since 2006’s “Surprise,” Simon asks if the world would shed a tear without humans, he rewrites his ending and he sings of God disappearing from earth and calling men slobs — all with a tone only Simon can pull off.

The album addresses age-old themes of life, mortality and love. At 69, Simon is far from the first aging singer to craft an album that addresses such topics. However, he is one of the few who can do it in a way that’s both beautiful and playful.

Simon has always had a knack for wry, playful lyrics that aren’t absurd or mocking (think “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard” and “Cecelia”). The new album is no exception, and “Rewrite” is probably the best example as Simon sings, “I’ve been working at the carwash / I consider it my day job / Cause it’s really not a pay job.”

Despite some serious themes, the album opens on an ironic note with “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” a single released last November during the holiday rush that still deserves a listen in spring.

The tone and sound of “So Little or So What” takes the sting off any reflective gravity. After a half century in music, Simon still sounds youthful on tracks like “Dazzling Blue,” where he’s backed by simple Afro-Cuban drumming and minimal guitars.

The song “So Beautiful or So What” closes the album’s 10 tracks with its most bold guitar rhythms that border on a country twang. The track proves Simon is still a skilled lyricist: “You know life is what we make it /so beautiful or so what.”

“Nine Types of Light”

by TV on the Radio 4 of 5

TV on the Radio’s “Nine Types of Light” fittingly opens with Tunde Adebimpe’s voice sparsely backed by drums and organs.

In a band where most of the members play multiple instruments, it’s Adebimpe’s vocals that adeptly shine on “Nine Types of Light.”

TV on the Radio’s fourth album features simplicity much of TV on the Radio’s prior work often lacks. But that’s not to say the songs lack depth or complexity — it’s not minimalism. After all, there’s no shortage of instruments. Kyp Malone lends backup vocals, plays guitar, bass, synthesizer and strings (plus he rocks a beard deserving of pure envy).

A layer of loops and electronics is peeled back from prior albums, allowing the band’s core of vocals and guitars to shine. When Adebimpe sings “It stables my survival / when there’s music all around me and I haven’t got a single word to say” on “Second Song,” his vocals aren’t buried in a barrage of sound.

The loops and drum beats that bordered on dance pop in “Dear Science” tracks like “Dancing Choose” are replaced with an understated, yet poignant, soul and emotion. The soulfulness fills tracks like “Keep Your Heart,” a ballad that features a chorus of seamlessly layered vocals. The heart carries over to love songs like “Will Do.”

There’s still no shortage of energetic, foot-tappers like “No Future Shock” and “Repetition.” Tension builds on “Repetition” through multiple guitars and Adebimpe’s charmingly mechanical vocals that give way to falsetto cries finally give way to — well, obviously — repetition at the song’s close.

While “Nine Types of Light” isn’t an extreme change in sound, the band tightens things up just enough for its most consistent album.