Paul Simon has triumphantly set foot (musically, that is) in the 21st century with his first album of new material in six years.
Surprise (Warner Bros.), one of his best albums, is a captivating, rich brew of lyrical beauty, enhanced by the electronic soundscapes of Brian Eno. It has an understated edge to it and draws comparison to 1983’s Hearts and Bones (a masterpiece of loss and reconciliation) overshadowed by another, more popular masterpiece, 1986’s Grammy-winning Graceland.
There also is a similarity in theme to John Lennon‘s Double Fantasy. The bliss of domestic life on Surprise‘s “Beautiful” and “Father and Daughter” (the latter a 2002 Academy-Award nominee for Best Song) echo Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” and “Watching the Wheels.” Simon paid homage to Lennon with the song “The Late Great Johnny Ace” on Hearts and Bones, and one can only imagine Lennon creating an album like Surprise were he alive.
Augmenting Simon’s musings is legendary electronics wizard Eno, a co-founder of the glam-rock band Roxy Music who has worked with David Bowie, Robert Fripp, U2 and others. On the surface, the collaboration between Simon and Eno appears incongruous, but the end result is seamless and made in heaven.
Why they haven’t worked together before is a mystery. Eno co-writes three of the 11 songs on Surprise, and his textured electronic soundscapes melt into Simon’s vivid imagery, especially on the epic “Once Upon a Time There Was An Ocean.” Bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Gadd are perfect complements to Simon and Eno’s collaboration.
The songs on the album sneak up on you and gain more depth with each listening. It has been said that in the particular is contained the universal, and Simon has made a living writing with this notion in mind. There is a lot of water imagery on this CD. The liner notes even highlight the references in bold type: water, tears, ocean, sea, rain, storm. Water is a birth symbol, but it also can signal a cataclysm or a deep emotional sadness.
The opening track “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” begins with fireworks and ends with a flood. The guitars are revved up to create a wall of sound reminiscent of the compositions of Philip Glass and Fripp’s King Crimson. The inferences to Hurricane Katrina and the deluge of New Orleans last year cannot be overlooked, but the imagery is more in line with birth and death, the apocalypse and the questioning of life’s existence. In effect, Simon is asking: How can you live anywhere on the planet considering the circumstances?
These and other themes are further explored in “Another Galaxy” (a weeper about changing your life) and “Outrageous,” catchy, quirky and funked-up pieces that counterbalance the more sedate tones of “Wartime Prayers,” a mournful song (with Herbie Hancock guesting on piano) dedicated to “. . . every family scattered and broken.” This song is a subtle indictment on the war and its practitioners. Simon muses that: “People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars,” and “. . . you cannot walk with the holy if you’re just a halfway decent man.” From his point of view, these sentiments apply to both sides of the current terror conflict.
“Sure Don’t Feel Like Love” is a meditation on social responsibility and making choices, and facing the consequences for wrong decisions, a lesson all world leaders should take note of.
“Everything About It Is a Love Song” is about getting older (Simon will turn 65 in October) and having regrets, but enjoying everything just the same.
Simon also thinks a lot about God: References to God or religion appear on almost every song. The narrator in “Outrageous” (co-written with Eno) starts out ranting against man’s inhumanity to man, then laments his fading looks. In the end he leaves it all in the hands of God, and he’s content to be “just an ordinary player in the key of C.”
This collection of songs is heartfelt and thoughtful, surprisingly spiritual and uplifting; anyone who has lost track of Simon over the years is in for quite a surprise with this album.
— By Donald Gavron