Paul Simon Surprise

15 Years Ago Paul Simon’s ‘Surprise’ Synthesized Traditional and Transformational Songwriting

Surprise shows that the familiar pleasures of Paul Simon’s work are the themes and musical sparks that leave a lasting influence.

Paul Simon
Warner Bros.
9 May 2006

Father and Daughter”, the final track on Paul Simon’s 2006 album, Surprise, marks the artist’s intent to draw in a transgenerational audience. A tender wish for good things for his child, “Father and Daughter” was penned as the theme song for the animated feature The Wild Thornberrys Movie and likely appealed to both children and their parents. After all, Simon was already a transgenerational artist whose first single—a duet with Art Garfunkel performing as “Tom and Jerry”—charted in 1957.

Simon’s impact as a musician can be marked by a handful of flashbulb generational moments, beginning in 1967, when Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman sat at the back of the bus in the last scene of The Graduate while Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” plays. Then, there’s 1986, when Saturday Night Live veteran Chevy Chase towered over Simon as the two delivered a goofy music video version of “You Can Call Me Al”. In 2001, he confirmed his dual role as a native New Yorker and songwriter when he captured the American ethos by standing on a candlelit stage and singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the September 11th heroes benefit concert. A physically unassuming man with a smallish voice and big ideas, Simon has left a career-long mark on folk-rock and the rest of popular music.

Surprise was Simon’s 11th solo album, following five platinum studio albums by Simon & Garfunkel between 1964 and 1970. Throughout his career, aspects of Simon’s music have remained foundational alongside the emergence of new qualities, creating an oeuvre with a comfortable range of variety. His focused lead guitar and trademark tight rhymes enable listeners familiar with his style to readily tag a song as Paul Simon’s. Yet, there are lyrical and musical moments that offer refreshing shifts, enlivening particular songs or albums. On Surprise, Simon offers a group of tunes that reflect both his traditional and transformational styles.

“How Can You Live in the Northeast?”—the opening track—blends isolated guitar with a full rock sound. While it is not unusual for Simon to take up political and social issues, earlier songs like “The Boxer” did so metaphorically. Here, Simon is blunt, mimicking intolerance with resonant repetition: “How can you be a Christian? / How can you be a Jew? / How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu? / How can you?” He offers a humanist solution, arguing that whatever religion is assigned to us or whatever path we choose, “Everybody gets a tongue to speak / And everyone hears an inner voice”. Like many of the songs on Surprise, “How Can You Live in the Northeast” was inspired by the post-9/11 American ethos; here, Simon sees that an event reputed to unite the nation actually created conflict and discord.

The quiet sensibility of “Wartime Prayers” speaks to the pain of families who are broken by the death and destruction of the war that followed. With the same voice for unity present throughout his career, Simon makes sure to say these prayers are “in every language spoken”. The gospel harmonies in the chorus are reminiscent of the unforgettable vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland. A kind of humility common in his lyrics is heard here as well, as he notes his wish to rid himself of anger and envy. In both sounds and words, “Wartime Prayers” recalls the 1970 Simon & Garfunkel hit “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (in which the offer of comfort and peace is extended as a relief from physical and emotional pain). 

Graceland was Paul Simon’s foray into world music, blending various styles with musicians from different cultures, especially South Africa, where the album was produced. Those beats and instruments have remained integral to his music, including Surprise, released twenty years after Graceland. The influence of Brian Eno—who co-wrote three pieces and played on every composition on Surprise—brought another thread of world music to the LP. Specifically, the Simon/Eno collaboration “Outrageous” is one of the album’s most memorable entries. It’s a loud, rocking rant, with a blend of sarcastic and poignant lyrics typical of Simon’s later albums. 

In addition to critics who review his work, Simon has talked about how aging has created a sense of urgency and inner peace within his music. Beginning with his assertion that “It’s outrageous to line your pockets off the misery of the poor”, Simon barely lets up (although his complaints turn personal and humorous when he claims his own outrage for doing “600 sit-ups a day” and “painting [his] hair the color of mud—mud, okay?”). Consolation comes finally with the assertion that God will love you even after your looks are gone. Clearly, lighthearted sentiments to challenge inexcusable social norms are a powerful approach for like-minded listeners.

Eno also co-wrote “Another Galaxy” and the surrealistic track “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean”. The latter resonates with the worldview of Simon’s underrated 1990 album, Rhythm of the Saints. The speaker—who once was an “ocean” but now is a “mountain range”—is the same speaker who is content when he finds a room with a hot plate and some beer in the fridge. Finally, the song leaves us with the notion that “nothing is different, but everything’s changed”. Thematically, the paradoxical message of “Ocean” tells the larger story of Surprise in the context of Simon’s musical journey. The familiar pleasures of Paul Simon’s work are the themes and musical sparks that leave a lasting influence, even 15 years after its release.