"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.