CK Retro Review: Surprise by Paul SimonPosted: October 4, 2013
Perhaps realizing that he was getting diminishing returns from the forays into World music that began so spectacularly with Graceland, Paul Simon found a new path on 2006’s Surprise. That title couldn’t have been more appropriate, since listeners expecting the percussion-led workouts of his previous few albums were instead treated to guitars polished with gleaming sonics, beats that were at times robotically precise, and electronic effects that brought artificiality into Simon’s music like never before. And guess what? The album, sculpted with help from studio wizard Brian Eno, was consistently fine and occasionally splendid. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”- You can give credit to Eno and the sonics for the album’s success, but the fact is that Simon’s songwriting was much sharper as well. This may be the only example of a song where the focus falters, but the subtle funkiness and the breeziness of Paul’s performance still makes it a keeper.
10. “Beautiful”- An addled father watches his family get bigger practically by the moment in Simon’s loose narrative. Bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Gadd have a loose chemistry as a rhythm section that sparks their songs together, including this one, while the falsetto chorus is a moment that evokes the song’s title.
9. “That’s Me”- As on You’re The One, Simon spends a good portion of Surprise pondering deep stuff like the nature of identity and the passage of time. The difference is that he laces songs like “That’s Me” with ample helpings of lived-in details and self-deprecating humor. When he does wax philosophic and poetic, as in the gorgeous middle section here, the beauty of it really pops from the earthier surroundings.
8. “Everything About It Is A Love Song”- There is a little bit of everything going on in this song, maybe too much at times, but it’s a thrilling collaboration of sounds. The stark opening gives way to a skittering beat that seems to constantly pick up pace. Guitar legend Bill Frisell adds some virtuosity to Eno’s inspired knob-twiddling. I’m not sure you can say about too may Simon songs that you’re breathless at the end of it, but this one qualifies.
7. “Wartime Prayer”- I personally think that this is one song where the ambition of it all gets a bit in the way. The quieter parts are heart-rending stuff, and Simon’s lyrics effortlessly shift from sympathetic pleas to pointed jibes (“People hungry for the voice of God/Hear lunatics and liars.”) Alas, the rock gospel section is a bit forced and overblown, keeping this song from reaching its full potential. Still, what works really sizzles.
6. “Father And Daughter”- Let’s face it: Rock songs written by fathers for children can be sticky sweet to the point of annoyance. Simon avoids that pitfall with music that’s accessible yet still interesting and lyrics that are hopeful without being naïve. Familiar childhood signposts like bed monsters and fishing trips mix with sober advice: “Try to help the human race/Struggling to survive its harshest night.” Paul’s jazzy main guitar riff is a great anchor as well.
5. “Outrageous”- One of Eno’s more famous projects was Achtung Baby by U2, which featured “The Fly.” Even though Eno didn’t have a hand in producing that particular song, the same vibe percolates through “Outrageous,” especially in the phrasing of Simon’s quasi-rapping in the verses. And, like those great U2 songs, this one really soars when it opens up from the chunky open sections into the more melodic portions. Paul’s concerns about social ills and personal frailties can be summed up in one frazzled line: “It’s outrageous I can’t stop thinking ‘bout the thing I’m thinking of.”
4. “How Can You Live In The Northeast?”- Upon hearing those power chords at the start of this album, you’d forgive some Simon fans if they thought the clerk had inserted the wrong disc into their slipcase. The evidence that it is prime Paul comes in the song’s chameleonic nature. It quickly shifts from the narrator’s wondrous visions of fireworks into a series of close-minded questions that Simon utilizes to drive home his point about how inane it is that religious and geographical differences can be blown up into impenetrable barriers. This has as much bite as anything Simon had released in decades.
3. “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean”- Again, the title suggests some kind of treatise on life that takes us back into the mists of time. In a way, it does, but you also get a very relatable modern story about a guy who shrugs off what he sees is a dead-end life only to find his original home exerts more of a pull on him that he ever could have expected. The final verse is a show-stopper, one that can make you misty-eyed. The jumpy music in the narrative parts steps back to let Simon’s melody flow through in the most important places.
2. “I Don’t Believe”- Simon is skilled enough to ask questions about trenchant topics like faith without coming off as hectoring or condescending. He shows that quality in spades here, a song with sadly pretty verses and rugged connecting sections that let drummers Steve Gadd and Robin DiMaggio release the thunder. Once again, Simon not only makes it look easy when he shifts gears in midstream, he makes it positively essential to the song’s success.
1.”Another Galaxy”- Simon has to be praised for taking a chance on this album and such a drastic change in sound. The synthesis for which he was striving is achieved to perfection here. Eno conjures a nifty electronic hook, Palladino and Gadd keep things percolating beneath the action, and Simon delivers his most direct hit of a melody on the album. He also tells a poignant miniature of a story and delivers the bigger picture, a resonant one for this album in that it’s about the righteousness of restlessness, in the chorus. There’s not a wasted moment.
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