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Paul Simon - Surprise

2006-08-16 13:24

Because Paul Simon is always seeking new forms for his musical poetry, fans often feel disappointed when they first listen to any new album - particularly since he makes us wait a good four or more years for each one.

But even a little patience is once again richly rewarded. Surprise blends drum and bass, funk, and those classic Eno rock "soundscapes" that helped make U2 what they are today.

Brian Eno also co-wrote three tracks - the funky "Outrageous", as well as "Another Galaxy" and "Once Upon a Time there was an Ocean" - all noticeably drier and more rhythm-based than Simon's contributions.

The songs Paul Simon wrote himself - with Eno arranging - are the most special, and enriched by these two greats working together. Simon has been forced by Eno's influence to extend his phrases and push for gorgeous dissonances in the arrangements of the strongly-fronted vocals. Eno's relentless accompaniment adds this overall structure from the first track. The opener - "How Can You Live in the Northeast". It's a track exploring our petty human dissonances, and the links between these and the larger, more tragic culural clashes, expressd through many voices asking "How can you... " of anything unfamiliar. We're fearful, we're also curious, but do we want to hear the answers? Or do we just want to make others feel they're wrong? Simon, who shows great artistic courage in exploring the unfamiliar and pushing his own boundaries, is perhaps one of the few Grammy winners (he has nine!) who actually has the right to ask this question in a pop song.

"Wartime Prayers", an anthem for peace, unflinchingly seeks the personal freedom that comes with cleansing yourself of rage.It is a complex, sublime reinvention of gospel that doesn't just offer peacenicks someone to fight against. Paul Simon could teach that brilliant old olive-branch-bashing hippie Neil Young a thing or two about subtlety, with this meditation on prayer and faith that leaves the question of Simon's personal spirituality unanswered.
The lyrics are up there with Simon's best. They're not as liberally peppered with intellectual references as expected, but that doesn't make them any less finely shaded. In fact, the complete absence of that smugness only adds to their beauty.

In "I Don't Believe" he sidles smoothly from key to key and from mood to bluer mood: "I lean closer to the fire but I'm cold" he says. In simple words and ebbing and flowing melodies with and musical daubs of the carol "Noelle", he somehow captures the desperation of someone who feels he's running out of time to see the world come right. This perfect expressive turn of phrase is perhaps Simon's biggest talent. And it's one he clearly hasn't lost, and luckily, contentment hasn't gotten the better of him with age. The album is full of love for his children and about gratitude, but he's not about to start accepting the things he cannot change, just yet.

"The universe loves a drama you know / and ladies and gentlemen this is the show" he sings, his voice fresh as ever, miles from Graceland, humorous, and still so moving.

- Jean Barker


...Eno's presence is surely evident in more subtle ways, too, forcing Simon to reject the mediocre and pushing his voice and songwriting to their best in years.
- Nigel Williamson for Uncut

...he drops self-conscious barbs with the same pained wiseass spirit that made him poet laureate of New York alienation in the early Seventies.
- Christian Hoard for Rolling Stone

...the fact is that Surprise is Simon's best work for aeons.
- Chris Jones for BBC

Ever inventive, Paul Simon isn't one of those artists who bursts back from the dead like they've never been gone. Instead, he's constantly reborn in music, always taking on new challenges through daring collaborations with other highly talented people. This time, he partners with Brian Eno. And the results are as inspiring and moving as ever.

What to read next: Kalahari

Peter 2006/07/28 12:29 PM
Surprise Very distinctive Paul Simon sound although with some wonderfully fresh surprises, as one has come to expect from PS !
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