Even if you’re an artist with a volume of work solid enough that you don’t really need to worry about the quality of your legacy, it’s best to be wary of the idea of the All-Star Collaboration — seriously, don’t make me YouTube that video of Paul McCartney neutering “Yesterday” at the Grammys this year with Jay-Z and Linkin Park. I’ll do it. I get crazy when I’m like this.
As such, it’s with cautious optimism that we unwrap this Surprise, Paul Simon’s latest and a record partially written and produced by Brian Eno. On paper, that’s one of those zingy double-ups that tends to set the rock intelligentsia atwitter — even if, as is the case with Surprise, the sonic results are generally way less nutty than what you (or I) were probably predicting when enthusiastically devouring the first few news stories about it. Eno’s biggest gift to Surprise is standing well in the background of it; his work here involves beat-amending and the judicious employment of rhythm, which is more or less the sort of thing Simon got into with Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints and hasn’t really ever given up. No question that Eno has the innate ability to telegraph where Simon is going with things — he lovingly turns up the six-strings and lets them gently fade on pretty breezes of tracks like “I Don’t Believe” and “Another Galaxy”, and adds tasteful synthetics to make wonderful things of songs like “Everything About It Is a Love Song”. But his role is to fill in the blanks in Simon’s playbook of songs — and they’re some of his strongest ones in years.
A bright and rewarding work that will be lauded as “His Best Album Since Fill in the Blank Here”, Surprise is a low-key, sneaky little record, one without the fireworks of “Kodachrome”, “Late in the Evening”, or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, but plenty of quiet, smoldering beauty — “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”, “Another Galaxy”, “Father and Daughter”.
As befits his lofty legacy as a songwriter, Simon’s targets here are big ones, particularly the troubled state of the union, which rings a bell for some reason. Simon’s not out to furnish a lot of answers (aside from family, which makes a number of appearances, and a surprisingly assured set of shout-outs to God), but he’s savvy and road-tested enough to keep the questions coming: “How can you live in the Northeast? How can you live in the South?” Simon dryly intones in the record’s first track, carrying the metaphor on with a zing and a bite, “How can you be a Christian? How can you be a Jew?” By the first chorus of the record, he’s throwing sideways insults at the legions of walls people have managed to put up between them, but his assured, heartwarming voice belies its usual sadness.
“Northeast” sets the lyrical path for the rest of the album, which, not surprisingly, unfolds in the shadow of war. As with many of the aging rock icons dropping albums this spring, Simon takes the occasion of Iraq to furnish “Wartime Prayers”, a well-meaning missive about the cost of battle at home that leans treacly, but his sheer sincerity pulls it off. (A more effective polemic is “Northeast”, which dryly ends up sounding like a Denny Hastert stump speech: “How can you live on the banks of a river when the floodwater pours from the mouth?”)
But a number of socially gray cast members populate the rest of the album too, most entertainingly himself in “Outrageous”, a funk/near-rap number that’s plagued with the potential for hideous terror but ends up being pretty enjoyable anyway. “It’s outrageous to line your pockets off the misery of the poor, outrageous the crime some human beings must endure,” before stepping outside himself to do a little pop psychiatry: “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?”
At 64, that’s a question that’s got to be first and foremost on his mind, but Surprise finds him trying to provide his answers with a master’s sense of dignity and grace. Ah, let him go getting all electronified on us. Simon’s certainly earned the right to go playing around in the sonic playground, but what’s most refreshing — and surprising — about Surprise is how he manages to do so while being enviably comfortable with himself.