Surprise – Paul Simon

  • Produced and (mostly) written by Paul Simon, with ‘sonic landscape’ contributions from Brian Eno, and featuring veteran Steve Gadd on drums, this is Simon’s first album since You’re The One (2000), and Surprise has been widely applauded as a welcome return to form for the early-1970s’ superstar.

    Opening track, How Can You Live In Northeast? enthusiastically – but certainly not impatiently – picks apart a lot of socio-politically relevant rhetoric, while maintaining a sensitivity to mellow philosophical issues, finding comfort in family (“I am wearing my father’s old coat”) and some amusingly sardonic takes on traditional spirituality (“If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?”). In marked contrast to Eno’s coolly subtle electronics, Gil Goldstein’s harmonium beams out with an audible glow before the final verse. A simple acoustic guitar strum begins Everything About It Is A Love Song; yet again Eno brings a much-needed wiry energetic freshness and appealing whimsy to Simon’s familiar balladeer’s charm. “Far above the golden clouds, the darkness vibrates.”

    Celebrated musicians are notorious for their over-inflated egos, but there’s no evidence in Outrageous that Simon is either arrogant or pompous when considering his work (“I’m an ordinary player in the key of C”), and lifestyle (“I’m painting my hair the colour of mud”). The song begins as a morally forthright attack on human stupidity and corporate indifference, and then spins off – still on a tightly controlled trajectory – into stream-of-consciousness chat about accepting God’s love, and self-deprecatory comment (“Anybody care what I say? No!”), and it’s all winningly boosted by jangly guitars, and Eno’s keenly felt pings of the listeners’ psyche. Despite admissions of guilt and conscience wrangling, the confessional tone of Sure Don’t Feel Like Love avoids even a hint of pretension (“Yay! Boo!”). There’s nothing affected here. Simon’s openhearted honesty benefits from the track’s compelling lyricism (“You get sick from that unspoken”).

    “You cannot walk with the holy if you’re just a halfway decent man”

    Wartime Prayers edges slowly from its earnestly folk-themed appeal for basic human decency in Simon’s instantly recognisable style, to broadly anthemic rock mode, with the Jessy Dixon Singers bringing vocal weight to the frankly moving chorus. Beautiful concerns first world adoptions of orphans from poverty-stricken third world nations. Without offering any kind of strong opinion about this – somewhat dubious – practice (philanthropic sponsorship would surely be the most advantageously humanitarian option?), Simon’s richly melodic song is quite satisfying and quietly humorous but lacks impact. I Don’t Believe skims wondrously from superbly light and airy folk-pop enhanced by Eno’s squiggly ambient effects to moderately bluesy rhythms marked by darker, stinging cynicism (“I was dealing my last hand of poker. My cards were useless as smoke”) Perhaps this brooding tone is brought out by Simon’s sombre reflections on the current state of American politics.

    Addressing the anxiety-dreams of a haunted runaway bride, Another Galaxy rarely breaks its initial stately tempo, chaptered by steely guitar zings, but never misses an opportunity for soulful vocals. The electronic percussive beat of Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean continues the yearning (“fluttering down as leaves of emotion”) and narrative themes, exploring some of the poetically dramatic changes of modern life. Soaring and diving, the biographical That’s Me has textured riffs that will haunt listeners for months after this album has been cast aside for newer releases. Simon’s contended recognition of his advancing years (“Forgotten is a long, long time”) lurks in the background of the heady song’s expressionism. Brimful of joy, Father And Daughter is an unconditional-love letter (“I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever”) to Simon’s little girl, Adrian – who guests as backup vocalist. This song was featured on the soundtrack of animated movie The Wild Thornberrys, and it predates Eno’s involvement in this project.

    Although this album never attains the artistically creditable heights of Simon’s classic Gracelandopus, it’s a very safe bet for his many devotees, and will hopefully win over hundreds if not thousands more discerning, younger, fans of sophisticated folk-rock.