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CD Review: Paul Simon – Surprise

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"Surprise" is not enough. Shock is the proper word. When I read that Paul Simon was teaming up with musician/producer Brian Eno, I honestly didn't know what to think. It just made no sense to me. Simon, the legendary folk artist—Simon & Garfunkel, Rhymin'.

Wrong. Very, very wrong.

I guess the problem was that I always hear Simon's voice in a rootsy, acoustic environment. Even the polyrhythmic environment of Graceland is essentially acoustic. Eno brings the heavily layered and textured approach used to great effect with artists such as Robert Fripp and U2. Paul Simon? Come on!

So, on a recent trip to the local store to replenish my supply of allergy pills (lest I sneeze out what's left of my brains while driving to work every morning), I popped Surprise into the CD player. A few crisp electric guitar chords and some rigid percussion formed the base over which Simon's voice floats. The verses start in this sort of rock mode. It's during the chorus that Eno-time kicks in. The heavy guitar falls away to allow Simon's voice to dominate. A light, repeated, Fripp-esque guitar figure holds everything up. The contrast between those two musical segments parallels the lyrical shifts, where the verses introduce themes of human innocence and development while the chorus ponders how we cope with life's problems, how we become who we are. When the electric guitars explode into the final verse, it's one of the most surprising and exhilarating moments I've ever come across on a Paul Simon record.

The rest of Surprise is full of similarly rewarding aural experiences. There's something about the pairing of Simon's voice with Eno's soundscapes that just works. The jazz guitar figures over musique concrète that opens "Another Galaxy", the Talking Heads-like lope that runs through "Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean", "That's Me" — sounding like it was completely constructed from instrumental samples, the techno-ish beats that underlay "Everything About It Is A Love Song," the choppy funk of "Outrageous," the slow-building, Gospel-infused "Wartime Prayers."  I'm not a religious man, but I love this line: "Because you cannot walk with the holy if you're just a halfway decent man."

Oh yeah, the car ride — back to the errands. I eased Surprise into the car CD player and almost immediately my surroundings vanished. TheWife and I rode in total silence, both of us mesmerized by the music. Upon arrival, I realized that I remembered almost nothing about the terrain we'd just negotiated. Nothing except the music on this great record.

Scary.

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I almost picked this up today. Might have to do it now.

  • http://jpspencer.blogspot.com J. P. Spencer

    My wife and I were watching Paul Simon on “Saturday Night Live” a few weeks ago. She turned to me and said, “This is pretty loud for Pau Simon”. I had to agree with her, but at the same time, it was Paul Simon bringing his universal truth-cityscape lyrics to the forefront. It’s all unexpected, and all welcome at the same time. I couldn’t be happier that one of my musical heroes continues to be relevant, if not crazy, after all these years.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    One of my favorites of the year so far. I’ve been referring to it as Eno with Paul Simon – I know Paul is listed as the producer, but it sure sounds much more like one of Eno’s pop albums with Paul Simon guesting than a Paul Simon album! It also shares some stylistic similarities to another Eno catalog favorite of mine, Wrong Way Up, with John Cale.

  • http://midnightcafe.wordpress.com Mat Brewster

    Dang it, Mark. Why is it that every time I read one of your reviews, I have to go buy more music?

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    it’s my evil plan.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    If anything, Brother Saleski understates just how good this record is. I’ve been stewing on it for weeks cause I haven’t figured out yet the words to explain just how good it is.

  • Paul Ramon

    This album is terrible. Painful lyrics. Scattered brilliance in a mess of cliche.

  • http://midnightcafe.wordpress.com Mat Brewster

    You are truly out for world domination then. That’s like evil plan #64 for you.

    I would have bought this disk eventually anyway.

  • http://insiderealestatejournal.blogspot.com Mr. Real Estate

    What do you have in store for us with Evil Plan No. 65, Mark? Hopefully it’s as good as this CD.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    must…resist…urge…to…purchase paul simon record…

    Brilliant review, Sir Saleski, as ever. still, me and paul, we don’t get on so well no more. OH GOOD LORD! i just realised i had a dream about him last night, he was playin guitar with terribly grizzled hands. That, my boy, was a direct result of this screed.

    I don’t have much time for anything after The Paul Simon Songbook. Still, maybe i’ll give this a spin. it IS an incredibly arresting review…

  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    Prepare thyself for more interesting genre mashups as aged boomer artists discover the buddy system to stay in the game (like all those wild parings of 1940’s & 50’s stars in the early 60’s).

    I can’t say I was shocked (and I wish Simon’s album title wasn’t so smug), after all, it was Tom Wilson’s radical studio additions that got ‘Sounds of Silence,’ therefore Simon, the royal chance.

    Eno, with his ‘tribal-techno’ rep, seems a pretty logical choice for a dude trying to knock another Graceland out of the park.

    Personally, I think pairing Simon with Sting would have been cooler (if the fuzak temptation could be kept in check) because, then, there would be musical and lyrical heat.

  • Karen S Toole

    Well folks….I’m sure I’m the uncoolest around but I am grieving the loss of the Paul Simon I’ve come to know and love AND the $18 I parted with to find that out. Not that I am a 59th St. Bridge Song nazi, just sorry – can’t get to all the ‘fuzz’ around the sound. Lyrics are o.k. Music too edgy for me.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Great review, Mark–I, too, did a double-take (though I barely managed to refrain from spritzing my coffee) when I read abouit this release a while back. Thanks for the early word.

  • nancy j. sandwick

    Love this album….and I love it more each time I listen and glean some new pearl from Paul’s lyrics. I didn’t think it was possible, but I do believe that this is now my favorite Paul Simon album. I am shocked but happy.