Paul Simon is smiling and talking about death. “Even though I don’t actually feel it, I understand intellectually that I’m running out of time,” he says with an air of resigned amusement. “But the denial instinct is so powerful that it doesn’t depress me or anything like that—I just think, Well, I’ll have to work on that subject. It’s important for one to think about: How am I going to make that transition, from being alive to not being in this body anymore?”
Simon, who will turn 70 this year, is still very much of sound mind and body. He has a remarkable, if awkwardly titled, new album—So Beautiful or So What, his first in five years. Today, he is rehearsing with his eight-piece band in the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, a run-down room with vestiges of its former opulence, once the site of legendary shows by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. His musicians look very much like his music sounds—young and old, black and white, familiar and new—and they’re running through the set they’ll take on tour this spring (including a stop at the Beacon Theatre on May 10 and 11).
Simon has always been something of a paradox—known for being a prickly perfectionist, he’s also able to laugh at himself (from dressing up in a turkey suit in the early days of Saturday Night Live to the riotous version of “Scarborough Fair” he performed with Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan at a benefit last year). Phil Ramone, who co-produced So Beautiful or So What and worked on such Simon classics as Still Crazy After All These Years in the seventies, notes that the singer has been “stabilized” by his nearly twenty-year marriage to singer Edie Brickell, 45, and their three children together. “This is a different part of his life, and it’s helped him a great deal to see what’s important,” Ramone says. The new album is full of meditations on God and death, but also affirmations of love—“Thank God I found you in time,” he offers on “Love and Hard Times.” Simon notes that his one regret about touring this spring is missing out on coaching his son’s Little League team.
His greatest work already belongs to the ages: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” turned 40 last year, and the Graceland album, which redefined him for a second generation, is now 25. Yet Simon stands alone among his peers in terms of continually chasing and experimenting with new sounds. So Beautiful is consistently surprising, with samples from old blues and gospel recordings butting up against Indian and African instruments and almost-imperceptible bells and gongs adding texture and richness.
This sonic fearlessness is surely part of the reason Simon has become an indie-rock favorite. In the last few years, bands like Spoon and Hot Chip have covered his songs. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend (whose band has borrowed liberally from the African rhythms of Graceland) just released a version of 1972’s “Papa Hobo.” Kid Cudi’s “50 Ways to Make a Record” recast “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” while the original has been sampled by the likes of Eminem, Tupac, and R.Kelly.
“I grew up with my folks listening to him,” says Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, who has performed “Kodachrome” onstage. “But as I got into songwriting, I realized how profound what he does actually is. His work over the years is a treasure trove of ideas, and for someone like me that hopes to do this for a long time, to see someone continue to find new sounds and reinvent himself is such an inspiration.”
On the new album, Simon is also looking beyond sound and structure, all the way to something like theology. In “The Afterlife,” the narrator finds himself reaching the pearly gates of Heaven, which turns out to operate something like the DMV. God delivers a brief history of time (and a complaint about contemporary radio) on “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” and He and Jesus pay a quick visit to Earth in “Love and Hard Times” to check on things.
“There was a moment where I realized, wow, five out of the first six songs I wrote have God in them, and I thought, What could this be about?” Simon says, his voice echoing in the Capitol’s empty lobby. “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.”
After more than 50 years of writing songs, Simon still expresses wonder at the mystery of the process. “There’s always a period that feels very fallow and there’s nothing in my mind,” he says, “and I always used to think, Well, that’s that and nothing’s going to come up. But I’ve come to realize that there probably is something going on, and it will eventually turn up as some kind of urge to do something. It’s my favorite thing in life to make up things, so I’m relieved and grateful whenever that urge comes upon me and I begin again.”
The making of So Beautiful actually began with a process he’d abandoned during the production of Graceland—sitting down with a guitar, rather than building up from the drums. His favorite moment on his previous album, 2006’s Surprise, was a chord progression in “Everything About It Is a Love Song,” and he wanted to revisit the idea of writing based on harmony rather than rhythm.
“It’s good to break habits, and a twenty-year habit is probably one it’s time to break,” he says. “I also think that it was a little bit of avoidance. It was easier to have drums come at me and react, bounce off the rhythm, than to face the blank page with just the guitar. So I thought it was a good idea to try to overcome that.”
He wrote three ballads this way, then started mixing things up again. The funky foundation of several songs comes from a hand-built cigar-box guitar he bought from a Mississippi blues musician known as Super Chikan. Marrying samples from the thirties and forties to new rhythms resulted in what he describes as “a very pleasurable sensation of something being old and new at the same time.”
Perhaps it is this merger of different eras and cultures on So Beautiful that has caused many to compare the album to Graceland. (A deluxe edition of the older album is being reissued this summer, along with other titles from the Simon solo catalogue.) Simon acknowledges that project as a high point in his career, but remains a bit puzzled by its ongoing popularity. “There’s something about it that’s enduring,” he says. “Parents tell me that their 3-year-olds love Graceland, and when it comes on, they get up and dance. So that has happened to me twice in my career—with ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and Graceland. It’s very unusual, and I’m grateful for it, but to a certain degree I don’t really feel like I own it.
“If there’s such a thing as immortality, then maybe there’s a little bit of immortality attached to that,” he continues. “But I don’t know what it actually means after you’re dead that your song is immortal. It’s like Woody Allen said: I appreciate living on in the hearts of my fans, but I would rather live on in my apartment.”