Paul Simon again takes the road less traveled
and that makes all the difference


By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


May 16, 2006

Paul Simon
Grade: B

Paul Simon will never be caught following anybody. In the '60s, when the rest of the music world was tripping -- and lighting each other's fires -- Simon was content to be feeling groovy. In the '80s, when the rest of the music world caught a New Wave, Mr. Rhymin' went to Africa for "Graceland."

On "Surprise," his first studio album in six years, Simon, 64, has married his folk and pop sensibilities to the electronic soundscapes of studio wizard Brian Eno (U2, David Bowie), whose band Roxy Music made its breakthrough just as Simon went solo in the early 1970s.

This marriage has its joyful moments but, like all marriages, it also has its frustrations. These songs were not writing collaborations; Simon has said that he delivered the songs, in various stages of development, to be Eno-ized.

So we have Simon and his guitars laying down typical, meandering melodies over folk, African and South American rhythms -- but awash in cascades of sound. Some are lush, some looped, some distorted. Often, it works. But we're too often aware of it working, like listening to a rock band backed by a symphony orchestra: Sure, it sounds OK, but ...

Yet this is still Paul Simon, an artist exercising his reach, vision and humanity, writing in image and metaphor.

On the opening track, "How Can You Live in the Northeast?", Simon asks a series of questions that have no answers, emphasizing our basic similarities "only three generations off the boat." Washes of synths and rhythm loops wrap the midtempo tune.

The CD title comes from "Everything About It Is a Love Song," a musical stew of movements and tempos, first bluesy, later with hints of India. The central image, a birthday party ("make a wish and close your eyes; surprise, surprise, surprise") is set against bittersweet regret. Later, the playful "That's Me" could be the shortest autobiography ever of an artist facing mortality.

The closest Simon comes to being overtly political is on the essential "Wartime Prayers" ("people hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars"), for the families of the soldiers, with a gospel choir and pianist Herbie Hancock added to the mix.

Simon turns playful, political and spiritual again on the funky, hip-hop influenced "Outrageous," questioning his right to complain about being tired after working out and coloring his hair when bloodsuckers are getting rich off the poor and so many people suffer through their days.

"Surprise" rewards a decent attention span. It is not instantly accessible. It is not "Graceland," warm and filled with hooks. There's no "Julio," no "Cecilia." It will be fascinating to hear what Simon does with these songs in concert.

"Surprise" is challenging, and in a pop music world ruled by burn-bright, flame- out familiarity, that could be its finest quality.