A nice 'Surprise' from Paul Simon

May 7, 2006


Though he resisted the easy lures of nostalgia and the lucrative temptations of recycling his past for longer than most -- unlike many of the Baby Boom's musical heroes -- 64-year-old Paul Simon seems to have been at a loss about where to go next as his career entered its incredible fifth decade.

Reinventing himself twice in the late '80s, Simon famously turned for fresh inspiration to the sounds of South Africa (with "Graceland" in 1986) and Brazil (with "The Rhythm of the Saints" in 1990), and the results were commercially and artistically phenomenal. But the singer and songwriter hasn't been nearly as successful since. "Songs From the Capeman," his 1997 foray into musical theater, was a muddled mess and a notorious flop, and his last album, 2002's "You're the One," was a stale attempt to revisit the sounds of his '70s solo albums, falling flat thanks to the absence of any tunes nearly as memorable as "Late in the Evening," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" or "Kodachrome."

Now, with the aptly named "Surprise," Simon not only has delivered on the promise of that title, he's given us his best album since "Graceland."

Much of the credit is due to legendary producer Brian Eno, the founding member of Roxy Music who went on to hone a radical/philosophical approach to recording on his own remarkable solo efforts as well as on productions for David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. But it should be noted that as impressive as Eno's contributions are, the decision to work with him was a brave one on Simon's part, since along with breaking down creative roadblocks, Eno is most famous for forcing artists out of their comfort zones, prodding them to challenge themselves by exploring strange new sonic worlds.

Eno described his methods to me in a 1992 interview about his work with U2. "They employ me to encourage them and to articulate their new ideas, because they have a lot of people obviously who will encourage them to do more of what they've already done," he said. "It's much easier to encourage something you recognize, so people from the company and all the people they work with will come along and say, 'That sounds great,' because it sounds like the U2 they know and love. Well, I'm part of the small contingent that redress that by coming along and hearing things that I don't recognize and saying, 'Wow, now that sounds really exciting. Let's follow that for awhile.' "

Modestly underplaying his role, the members of U2 went even further in noting that Eno would literally erase anything that he felt sounded overly familiar. It was brave enough for the notoriously egotistical Simon to partner with someone who works that way, but there's also the fact that Eno's productions never have been especially kind to acoustic troubadours. The sonic hallmark of albums such as Bowie's "Low," Talking Heads' "Remain in Light" and U2's "Achtung Baby" are that the vocals are on an equal plane with every other sound in the mix, and the hooks in a song are more likely to come from odd rhythm instruments or a synth or guitar that is barely recognizable as such.

Nevertheless, Simon decided to work with Eno after the two met at a dinner party in London. "We're both 'sounds' people," Simon told the Associated Press. "We're both about soundscapes. I thought he would bring an element that I hadn't ever encountered before, electronics, into a guitar record. Theoretically, it seemed to be a good idea. And when we actually did it, you could tell right away it was a good idea."

The appeal of "Graceland" and the best of Simon's '70s pop was immediate, infectious and celebratory, whereas "Surprise" is low-key effort that worms its way into your heart, resonating after repeated listens like the most heartfelt passages of a ruminative letter from an old friend. Like "Graceland," it maintains the best element of Simon's songwriting -- the impressionistic quality of lyrics that pack an emotional wallop far beyond the limited expressiveness of the singer's voice -- while placing it in an exciting new setting. This multi-layered, polyrhythmic, futuristic but nonetheless familiar ambient folk was crafted at Eno's home in London, as well as studios in New York and Nashville, with the stellar help of musicians such as guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Herbie Hancock and superstar session drummer (and longtime Simon collaborator) Steve Gadd.

The sounds are nothing short of astonishing, but the best songs succeed nonetheless primarily because of Simon's sarcastic wit, which has recovered the sharp edge of the '70s while incorporating a new sense of self-deprecation. "Outrageous" finds him deriding a list of modern social injustices ("It's outrageous to line your pockets off the misery of the poor ... It's outrageous the food they try to serve in the public school") with equal emphasis on the indignities of aging ("I'm painting my hair the color of mud ... Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?"). He laughs at his control-freak tendencies in "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" ("Once in August 1993 I was wrong / And I could be wrong again"), while "I Don't Believe" offers the punning confession, "I got a call from my broker / The broker informed me I'm broke" -- which isn't hard to believe after the "Capeman" fiasco.

But there's a serious side to the album, as well, with Simon -- whose first performance in support of the disc is at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival today -- evoking the wrath of Hurricane Katrina upon the Crescent City and echoing people who question why anyone lives there: "How can you live in the Northeast? / How can you live in the South? / How can you live on the banks of a river? / When the floodwater pours from the mouth?" At the end of "How Can You Live in the Northeast," he provides the answers: People stay because of faith and deep familial roots: "I've been given all I wanted / All the three generations of the book / I've harvested and I've planted / I'm wearing my father's old coat."

What's more, following in the path of Neil Young, who recently gave us a modern analog to "Ohio" with "Living With War," Simon echoes the power of "The Sound of Silence" in the haunting "Wartime Prayers," a poignant, humanistic ballad that finds the writer realizing that the desire for vengeance -- either as a New Yorker aghast at the outage of 9/11 or as a Jew horrified by the continuing violence in the Middle East -- has led to nothing but lives tragically lost on every side of the conflict.

"Prayers offered in times of peace are silent conversations / Appeals for love or love's release, in private invocations," Simon sings. "But all that is changed now / Gone like a memory from the day before the fires / People hungry for the voice of God / Hear lunatics and liars / Wartime prayers, wartime prayers / In every language spoken / For every family scattered and broken."

As is typical of any Eno production, there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns on "Surprise," but the biggest is this: Forty-nine years after he started writing songs with his friend Art Garfunkel as a high school senior in Forest Hills, Queens, Paul Simon sounds as inspired and vital as he ever has.