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Thursday, November 12, 2009


320 KBPS

You can get an idea of how Paul Simon's tenth solo album might have sounded without Brian Eno's input by listening to the closing 'Father and Daughter'. Written for 2002's The Wild Thornberrys Movie, with a rippling African guitar reminiscent of Graceland, it's a paean to fatherhood that's straightforward, pretty, polite.
The rest of Surprise is often melodic, but rarely polite and never straightforward. How much Eno, the arch-catalyst, is responsible for the elliptical quality of its songs is anyone's guess - he is credited for 'sonic landscape' rather than as producer - but the provocative, liberating influence the domed one has previously brought to bear on Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 (among others) is all over Surprise
Heaven knows Simon needed provocation. Since the peak of 1990's Rhythm of the Saints he has been ploughing barren ground. The debacle of his cherished 1997 Broadway musical The Capeman - critically mauled and commercially busted - seemed to leave him spent, and was little redeemed by 2000's mild-mannered You're the One. Surprise, then, lives up to its title, setting Simon's familiar, unassuming vocals, still note-perfect and without a rough edge in earshot, to inventive backings that shift between ambient electronica, hip-thrusting rock and shimmering, multi-tracked guitars, all sometimes in the course of a single song. Ever thought you'd hear rhymin' Simon with a drum'n'bass backdrop? Here he comes, promising that if he 'ever gets back to the 20th century', he'll 'pay off some debts, open the book of my vanishing memory with its catalogue of regrets'. Here he is registering to vote, 'feeling like a fool', to a Bo Diddley beat, and speculating whether 'the heart can be filled to the brim' to a sinuous synth setting straight from Eno numbers like 'Deep Blue Day'.
It's a bravura performance on both men's part. Simon has dug deep into his resources for a set of songs that are self-searching and droll, reflecting on mortality, religious faith and human compassion. Families and children - Simon has five by three wives - provide a central strand. There's a couple adopting a brood of kitchen lackeys on 'Beautiful', kids laughing 'without a whisper of care' and mothers asking for help on 'Wartime Prayers', clearly inspired by 9/11, with 'people longing for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars'. Simon offers no easy answers to the questions sprayed out in his memorable lines, alternating dreamy idylls with grumpy dissatisfaction while Eno's production ebbs and flows like a digitalised Greek chorus. A thrilling return to form.

1. How Can You Live In the Northeast
2. Everything About It Is A Love Song
3. Outrageous
4. Sure Don't Feel Like Love
5. Wartime Prayers
6. Beautiful
7. I Don't Believe
8. Another Galaxy
9. Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean
10. That's Me
11. Father And Daughter


Max said...

Moi je l'aime beaucoup, le Capeman :-)

M'en vais écouter celui là que je ne connais point encore, merci !

Scoredaddy said...

I thought this a brilliant album the first time I heard it. I buy everything Paul Simon releases... thanks for bringing it to everyone's attention!

Mr Moodswings said...

@ Max
Il en faut bien un... ;)

@ Scoredaddy
This is indeed a neat album. The best Paul Simon released since the Graceland/Rhythm of the Saints times...

@ both
I'm doing a "baistophe" of Paul Simon I'm posting on saturday. I'd be curious to know what you think of the selection I cooked up.

Max said...

Hope there's an excerpt of Capeman ;-)