Monday, May 15, 2006


Surprise is the title of the new Paul Simon record -- just released Tuesday -- and it is freakin' great. Stephen Thomas Erlewine at All Music Guide has two nice write-ups of the album: an enthusiastic review and a timeline comparison of Simon's career with that of his surprising collaborator on Surprise, legendary glam-to-prog-to-punk-to-ambient-to-producing U2 electronics innovator Brian Eno.

I don't know if anyone in the history of pop music has been as consistently good for as long over the course of a career as Paul Simon. All of the other long-career greats -- Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Madonna, Prince, David Bowie -- had stretches or at least whole albums that even most diehard fans would rather forget. In 35 years as a solo artist, Paul Simon has released ten albums. None are bad, and if you strike Songs From the Capeman and One Trick Pony, songs associated with a musical and movie, respectively, you have eight albums that nearly everyone acknowledges to be great, and at least three -- Paul Simon, There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and Graceland -- widely considered to be among the very best of their era, even outright masterpieces.

I think Surprise needs to be considered in those same terms. I don't know whether everyone will like it. You have to get over a few things. Most of the album doesn't really jump way over the line in terms of sonic experimentation -- the closest parallels I can think of to its overall sound are Dylan's two albums with Daniel Lanois (Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind), albeit leaning towards Eno's production work on Talking Heads's Remain In Light or U2's Achtung Baby. It's listener-friendly, perfect for the slightly graying progressive audience already warmed up by indie composers like Sufjan Stevens on NPR. When I first heard the opening riffs of "Outrageous" (Track #3), the implausibility of the nearly 65-year old Simon sassy-skatting over punk-funk guitar took me aback. But by the time you get to the classic-Simon chorus (I predict that virtually everyone will call this song "Who's Gonna Love You When Your Looks Are Gone?"), all is forgiven. The push-pull between Eno and Simon is like that over the whole album: two aging superstars stretching their limits and showing the kids how it's done. I told some friends the other day that it was like going to a family wedding and watching your parents get up, go to the dance floor, and start to break dance. You just can't entirely believe it.

Simon's always occasionally dipped into the well of funk, albeit more often Spanish-inflected grooves than Parliament-Funkadelic. But the music on this album, while as sweet and wry and smart as anything that's come before, has an overt aggression that Simon's almost always masked. The drums, electronics, and guitar that kicks in at the end of standout "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" sounds closer to Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" or The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" than anyone could have expected to hear. Yet the album still has the same lyrical and intellectual preoccupations: aging, relationships, God, history, escape, family, America. Simon's always had a sharp edge in his lyrics that people often miss -- here the razor just sticks out a little farther from the candy wrapper. There's a terrific line on another great track, "Once Upon A Time There Was an Ocean," that sums it all up:

I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean.
But now I'm a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, yet everything's changed.
That's Paul Simon, and that's this album. Very highly recommended.

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