With 1968’s Mrs. Robinson, Paul Simon wondered aloud as to the whereabouts of Joe DiMaggio. With the tuneful world-music-infused pop of his new album, So Beautiful or So What, the 69-year-old icon is still asking questions – and answering some – after all these years.
The title of your new album is So Beautiful or So What. We could ask that question about the record itself: It’s beautiful – people are saying it’s your best in 20 years – but, in this day and age, does the album matter any more?
The album format isn’t going anywhere. There’s something very natural about that. I think most musicians are very comfortable working with that as the structure.
The musicians are, but are music fans?
Well, it doesn’t apply to pop music, which is most of what the charts are. And, to a lesser degree, it doesn’t apply to hip hop. Although, certainly in the history of hip hop, there were records that were very album-orientated. But that form isn’t going away. Indie music also has a lot of album-orientated artists.
Aren’t younger consumers of music more interested in tracks than in albums as a whole?
The album has been dealt some severe blows, with the change of the music business. And one of them was the technology that provided the music gave you really lousy earphones and a narrow bandwidth. So the sound quality was diminished. And for people who used the sound palette as part of their music, a lot of their work is kind of edited out. But that will change, I think.
How do you attract listeners back to the album?
I felt I had to make an album that was really, really interesting. That’s the answer to it. If you make an album that’s interesting enough, people talk about it.
It also holds their attention, as they’re hearing the songs, doesn’t it?
That’s right. And they finish it, and it’s an enjoyable experience. And they say to somebody else, “I just heard an album that I really like.”
In the liner notes to So Beautiful or So What, Elvis Costello writes that he found a theme of love among the songs. But what struck me was the religious references. You even sample a preacher’s sermon from 1941.
I know what you mean, of course. But I don’t think they’re religious.
It’s closer to that, but that’s not even the word. For example, Questions for the Angels really ends up as a question of “is the species any good for the planet?” What angel is going to answer that question? That’s not even a question you would pose to an angel.
What about the song Love and Hard Times?
Well, you have a description of God and his only Son in the first two verses, and then you have a total love song that ends up with the person being so grateful for his love that he thanks God. When our hearts are filled with gratitude and our hearts are filled with love, our culture has taught us that we should thank God. But, if in fact God left in the second verse, as in that song, what is it that makes us do that? What’s the love?
That love is probably here anyway. It’s part of humans, God or no God.
Is a prayer not answered on the song Rewrite?
The guy’s prayer is, Help me and thank you. Those are two prayers. You feel “help me” or “thank you” whether there’s anybody listening or not. I’m not particularly drawing a conclusion here. I’m just saying it’s something I see that we do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Paul Simon plays Toronto on May 6 (Massey Hall) and May 7 (Sound Academy). Listen to him discuss his new album here.