Paul Simon - 'Surprise'
What's this, Paul Simon sings and plays and Brian Eno provides 'sonic landscapes'? Oo er. Unsure what to expect, I ripped the plastic shrink-wrap off my brand new copy of 'Surprise', slid it into my CD player, pressed play and...
...was assaulted by the sounds of a distorted guitar banging out the opening chords to the album's first song, 'How Can You Live In The Northwest'. Oh boy, I thought to myself, utterly bemused, Eno's turned Simon into Townshend! Well, no, not really, at all. Despite the distortion imposed on Simon's guitars on this song, he's still playing the crystalline, lightly melodic poppy guitar lines, previously seen in excellent juxtaposition against the groovy inputs of South African and South American musicians on his late-80s world music-type albums, and now ensconced in electronic guru and producer of immense repute Brian Eno's layers of effects, loops, programs and whatnot.
This does lead to some completely new textures - the distortion on the opening track, the lo-fi funk of 'Outrageous'(where Simon himself is unusually sardonic), a song co-written by Simon and Eno and the free-form excursions of 'Everything About It Is A Love Song' and so on. Perhaps it's Eno's presence, too, that has freed Simon to work with unusual, non-traditional song structures. Other songs are less unexpected - 'Beautiful' is fairly standard, apart from the falsetto in which Simon sings the title, conjuring uncomfortable memories of fairly-recent hits by wimpy guys with nasal voices.
This isn't path-breaking stuff - electronica has been a well established gimmick for classic artists to experiment with for a while now. Everyone's done it - Bowie with typical chameleon-like precision, Jagger with predictably pretentiousness and distaste (on that rather worthless Goddess In The Doorway solo album). Paul Simon isn't staking a claim as a fearless trailblazer here - rather, he's doing something that has worked well for him before, reinvigorating his music with the addition of seemingly alien elements. It's to his credit that he is able to pull off a worthy album in the process, one that doesn't stick out as a bandwagonesque deviation on his musical path or a simple layering of electronic blips and bleeps in order to sound current.
What does let this album down a bit is the shortage of memorable melodies or really cohesive songs. Many of the aforementioned songs tend to meander about through a variety of moods, which a brave and good thing to do, but at times the cumulative impact is just a little too hard to pin down. The lyrics are the same - they touch upon what my friend Ravi characterises as the usual old-guy rocker issues of the moment - 9/11, identity, faith and so forth, but in an often confoundingly equivocative way. 'Beautiful', for instance, seems to be about the joys of adopting babies from thrid-world countries, but its hard to tell precisely what point Simon is making here, pro or con. You can chalk it up to subtlety, which is good, but sometimes it all seems a bit too vague. I need some of that clarity now! Still, I won't rate the odd strcutures and opaque (or at least translucent) lyrics as real minuses - mostly, they help create an album that doesn't just shoot its load first time around, but delivers on repeated listens.
Some of the best songwriting on this album checks in fairly late with 'Another Galaxy' and the wonderful 'Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean'. On the very last song, Simon chucks Eno out and strikes up a straightforward ode to his love for his daughter, 'Father And Daughter', a song which will either seem maudlin or sweet to you.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: In the end, Surprise is slightly more laudable than memorable. It is never unlistenable however, and the more Eno-ised and freeform songs do grow on you, so it's worth giving it some time to sink in. Simon fans will not find an unrecognisably mutated artist here, but you won't be disappointed if you're interested in hearing a classic artist exploring new territory with taste and intelligence.