Since severing his epochal partnership with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon's solo career been characterized by restless reinvention. But while it's easy to see such disparate, cross-cultural collaborations as Graceland
and Rhythm of the Saints
as Simon's quest for new creative partnerships, beneath them lies a more crucial willingness to continually challenge the very assumptions and craft of his own songwriting. Six years after his sublime, underappreciated You're the One
Simon has pushed that sensibility into a rewarding, if equally unlikely, partnership with Brian Eno. Yet the former Roxy Music texturalist cum contemporary producer/sound conjurer supreme (aided by such stellar sidemen as Bill Frisell, Herbie Hancock and Steve Gadd) offers barely half the "surprises" here.
The playful "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" argues Simon can still beckon his more traditional pop muse at will. Yet some of his best work here turns as much on hypnotic, if no less politically pointed, quasi-spoken word pieces (like "Wartime Prayers" and the gripping, post 9/11 rumination "How Can You Live in the Northeast?") as traditional songcraft. Eno is credited with providing "Sonic Landscape" to Simon's production, but also co-wrote three tracks, infusing "Another Galaxy" with contrasting doses of bracing energy and ethereal elegance, while seasoning the more traditional folk musings of "Once Upon a Time There Was An Ocean" with infectious electro-funk rhythms. "Outrageous," their best full collaboration, suggests that while Eno and Simon may approach world music - and indeed most pop forms - from polar extremes, the common ground they find is truly elevated. In an era when many of his peers are content to craft mere artistic comebacks, Simon's re-emergence here is a bold, compelling step forward. --Jerry McCulley
The surprises on Paul Simon's new album are small, but still worthwhile. Teaming up with everyone's favourite boffin, Brian Eno, may seem slightly odd. That is until you remember that Simon made his name with songs that were shot through with intellectual detachment and displayed a mind preoccupied with far more than the standard 60s folkie fare (songs about Frank Lloyd Wright anyone?). And indeed, it seems as though the pairing is an easy match, with Eno's 'sonic landscapes' tweaking Simon's muse up with sublime ambiences and 21st century rhythms as well as their obvious shared love of an Afrocentric vibe.
Belying his voice - which sounds as fresh and angelic as it did in 1965 - the songs concern themselves withage, family and beauty; all set in the socio-political landscape of a post-Bush USA (naturally). While it takes a little time to get used to the sound of the man who wrote "The Boxer" singing over a drum and bass beat, the end results (bolstered with guest spots from luminaries such as Herbie Hancock and Bill Frisell) are both beautiful and credible.
The only exception is the Oscar-nominated final track, "Father And Daughter", which pre-dates the Eno sessions (coming from the soundtrack of The Wild Thornberrys Movie) which, while lovely, jars with the sleeker textures of the rest of the album. But the fact is that Surprise is Simon's best work for aeons. --Chris Jones
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