CD Review:  Paul Simon - Suprise


In the fall of 2004 I was laid up for weeks in the hospital with an ugly infection that I spent most of a year recovering from.  For a couple of days, it seemed like a distinct possibility that I wouldn't survive. At the time though, I didn't care so much because I was suffering enough that I could have took it or left it at that moment.  But if I had died in 2004, I would never have gotten to hear Paul Simon's new Surprise album. This album's good enough that it has occurred to me to be glad that I've lived long enough to hear it. 

I've been listening to this album for a month now- and fretting over what to say about it.  I fear that I lack the skill to communicate just how good this album is.  So then, I'll make just a few general notes on this new masterwork- hopefully enough to convince you of the imperative of owning this beautiful artifact.

For starters, this album pretty much completely abandons the whole world music approach, which phenomenon sprang most obviously from Simon's 1986 Graceland album. Instead, his primary collaborator here is Brian Eno- another older, white Western intellectual type.  The credits list Paul Simon as producer, and Eno for "Sonic Landscape." He is also specifically credited as co-writer of three songs.  This is the best work I've heard from Brian Eno, largely because it's the best batch of songs he's ever had to work with- with all due respect to David Byrne.

The opening track especially has some particularly choice Eno electronic atmospherics.  "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" starts with a dark, staticy throb, as Paul works up a lament of the distrust and hatefulness that he sees tearing up the country in the immigrant's dreams within which he frames the song.  I think he might be a bit too pessimistic in that regard.  Still, when the guitars come crashing back from the break in the last minute, they've generated a wave that'd put some puny Pearl Jam record absolutely to shame.  I'd particularly recommend looking for the Saturday Night Live performance.

But besides being a better modern rock guitar band than Pearl Jam, Paul Simon is also arguably funkier than Snoop Dogg.  He's not billing himself as "funk" at all, but on the basis of "Outrageous" and "Sure Don't Feel Like Love," Simon can apply some hard, tight urban rhythms just as good as Mr. Broadus ever thought about- except that of course Simon's attaching those funky beats to real songs.

"Outrageous" has some particularly good agitated funk guitar.  This is one Eno is credited with co-writing.  The funk style thus might be better compared to the Talking Heads.  Paul is outraged all about the state of the world, and the crap they try to serve for food in the public schools, and so on.   In what starts out sounding like a taunt, in the key line of the song he demands, "Who's going to love you when your looks are gone?"

After a couple dozen listens, the point crept up on me.  He's not that pissed over cafeteria food- he's raging against the dying of the light.  He's resisting his mortality- thus the notable repeated line about doing 900 sit-ups a day.  Noting that he's looking pretty buff for a 64 year old Jewish songwriter, I wonder if he's not in fact doing those 900 sit-ups.

Thus he's asking who's going to love HIM when he's old and gray- and he's got an answer: God will.  I would have guessed Simon for an atheist, but apparently not.  I've heard just one or two glancing references in recent interviews, but there are a couple of places like this where it comes out in the music.  Halfway through then, the song turns around from the question, Simon loses the agitation and reaches a peaceful resolution.  I especially like the cranky agitation of the first part, but I even more like how the song structure doesn't just repeat verse and chorus, but GOES somewhere. 

One might argue that Simon perhaps sometimes errs a bit to the sweet side, so I'm often especially appreciative of the sourest edge of his thinking.  That would be the funk joint of the year, "Sure Don't Feel Like Love."  It concerns "a voice in your head that you'd rather forget."  The sharp guitars, the hard falsetto taunt of the melody in the vocal hook ("Who-oo-oooos that conscience..."), all the little things add up.  You might pay attention to the electric guitar commentary running under the verses.  For paranoid NYC white funk, this'd sound good in your iPod back to back with the Talking Heads' explanation about the conniving "Animals."

Simon helpfully explained the key line of this song in an NPR interview.  "Who's that conscience sticking on the soul of my shoe?"  This comes from advice that he was given to put overly harsh critical inner voices in perspective.  It was suggested that when he starts hearing these inner scripts, he should imagine them coming from something stuck on the sole of his shoe, like a wad of gum speaking in a funny voice, Bugs Bunny or something.  "Some chicken and a corn muffin, well that feels more like love."

The idea of comparing Paul Simon to Snoop Dogg first occurred to me because they both have songs called "Beautiful."  They're both funky pop songs- though not the hardest funk in either case.  Perhaps this comes from their similarly tender emotional tones.  They sound really good back-to-back. In this case, Snoop actually stands up reasonably well against an outstanding Simon song, reinforcing my thought that it is Snoop's best cut.

Paul Simon writes especially good lyrics partly by being especially specific in his imagery.  He's celebrating not just the beauty of children, but specifically the beauty of crying children, little orphans he's bringing home from various world hellholes.  The song plays like a re-assurance that he's giving to calm the children. 

Specifically again though, it's calming not pacifying.  It's not a lullaby to put the kids to sleep, but an uptempo play theme encouraging them to thrive in their new world, leading up to one of the most beautiful bridges he ever wrote, exquisitely detailing an idyllic afternoon playing in the sunshine.  Still, remembering the fragility of the crying babies, he ends the bridge urging "You better keep an eye on them children in the pool."

This is a wonderful song, and it's a great thing to think of these orphans getting a chance to come to America and thrive in the sunshine.  Still, a small Satanic voice from the sole of my shoe raises a metaphorical eyebrow as Simon describes the various continents of origin, with children from Bangladesh, China and Kosovo.  He wants to know when Paul's going to go to Antarctica and find him an Eskimo baby to complete the set.  Bad inner voice.

While we're on the idea of nice songs for children, note that he ends the album with "Father and Daughter."  This was originally published a couple of years ago on the Wild Thornberrys movie soundtrack.  This excellent song is probably my least favorite on the album- which is giving pretty high marks for the album.  It's a fine, well-developed melody, but also the simplest, most easily digestible thing on the album in several different ways.  The lyrics are a particularly uncomplicated declaration of parental love, with a straightforward sentimentality, and none of the experimental acoustics. 

There's still a lot of detail though, particularly in the text.  There's some real poetry to "just open your window and follow your memory upstream.  To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star."  I particularly appreciate the gentle note of careful dark honesty as he notes, "I can't guarantee there's nothing scary hiding under your bed."

Scary things brings us to his anti-war song, "Wartime Prayers."  It's a big old gospel song, thus most comparable stylistically in his work with "Bridge Over Troubled Water."  I don't know if this is actually a better song, but it sure has a much bigger and more interesting production.  Lyrically, the last lines really make the song, with the image of the mother kissing her babies on the shoulder as she protectively draws them in.

The key line of the chorus kind of makes me want to protest a bit, though.  "Because you cannot walk with the holy if you're just a halfway decent man."  Actually, typing the words now it seems like a very well measured rebuke of the president.  It's well stated.  My small objection isn't politics though- or not terrestrial politics, anyway.  I'm having a bit of a Protestant moment.  Hey, I'm as qualified to walk with God as the Pope or some cloistered monk. Me and Jesus got our own thing going, and all that.  I'd be interested to hear Simon extrapolate on this striking line.

The harshest emotional territory on the record, however, comes not in war, but from the stock market.  "I Don't Believe" frames it up very lovingly, gently and poetically, "Acts of kindness, like breadcrumbs in a fairytale forest, lead us past dangers as light melts the darkness."  That's beautiful right there, and the song follows through with that beauty and light.

But that's all the better to contrast to the most compelling moment that jumped out of the whole album the first time I heard it.  It's not just a financial, but a spiritual crisis in which the rug is suddenly pulled out from under him.  The guitars start crashing as he declaims, "I got a call from my broker.  My broker informed me I'm broke."  Those words look funny on paper, but they're deadly serious on the record.

Really, it's all good.  It's a beautiful summer evening, his wife and children are happy and carefree.  His broker was mistaken, and everything's as it was.  Except that his whole worldview and sense of security has been suddenly jerked out from under him, and there's no jokes or apology from his broker going to replace it.  It's a subtle effect, and it becomes more unsettling every time you hear it.

Every song on Surprise is an outstanding composition, but several of these other songs are especially memorable for the whole texture even more than the tune.  I don't know how much of it to credit to "production" or "arrangement" or to the underlying compositions.  But there's something really arresting about the spacey atmosphere, particularly the guitar (Simon himself, apparently) on the tale of a runaway bride in "Another Galaxy."

"Another Galaxy" and "Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean" are the other two tracks where Eno gets writing credit.  It seems like the production became prominent enough to be considered part of the actual composition.  Listen carefully to all the little distinctive elements layered under that ocean, from the trebly guitar chords that open it to the cutting electronic beats of the verses. 

Even as one of the lesser compositions on the album, "That's Me" features a really nuanced production that underscores how totally the whole record blows away any Simon and Garfunkel as a sonic achievement.  Not to take anything away from "Mrs Robinson," but it's like the difference between Please Please Me and Abbey Road production wise.  Note those multiple thin very distinctive layers of guitar on "That's Me."  He was only maybe starting to get this much good out of a studio no earlier than Hearts and Bones.

That leaves us finally to sum up with the second track, which concerns how worthwhile the whole trip really is- through dreams and regretful memories, and projections forward through life and death.  All of which leaves me inclined to agree with him, from children's birthday parties to hospitalization and facing mortality and a new Paul Simon album waiting like an audio pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,  "Everything About It Is a Love Song."

Martin Rinehart cracks the Paul Simon code -  This dude likes Surprise even more than I do. Drop in and join his discussion.


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