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May 9, 2006

Simon, Eno join for sonic Surprise

As long as I can remember, music has been a part of my life. Paul Simon was the first musician that I was exposed to as a small child. I can still recall sitting on the Oriental rug in my parents’ apartment listening to Still Crazy After All These Years. So, as you can imagine, news of the first Paul Simon album in six years gave me something to anticipate.

To denote the passage of time, my Dad always says, “Every time you turn around, you’re carvin’ pumpkins.” As we grow a year older, a jack-o’-lantern rots away, another kid gets sick from a midnight candy binge, and a new Paul Simon album remains nowhere to be found. Well, the wait is finally over.

Electronic guru Brian Eno produced the aptly titled Surprise (scheduled for release today), and he incorporates aspects of his trademark sound into Simon’s music. Eno has been a major player in popular music, producing albums for U2 and the Talking Heads, among others. Legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock also appears on Surprise.

Simon’s most recent effort was the Grammy-nominated You’re The One. While the album was nothing to scoff at, Simon’s best work was clearly in the past. He’s always one to break barriers and never settle for the constraints associated with a genre. Experimentation has been his weapon of choice.

It is difficult to link Surprise to highly eclectic albums like Songs from The Capeman, Rhythm of the Saints, and You’re the One. The tradition of Surprise is one that continues from Paul Simon (Simon’s first post-Garfunkel disc), Still Crazy After All These Years, and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Those three albums, indicative of ’70s Simon, were evidence that the songsmith of Simon and Garfunkel had retained his unique voice.

Surprise’s “Wartime Prayers” is a thoughtful piece on modern times that resists becoming too political. Simon focuses on the soldiers’ families, and his lyrical maturity separates him from ordinary singer-songwriters. While many of the tracks may be quite mellow, the album still contains a fair amount of pop. “Beautiful” and “Outrageous” evoke the catchiness and humor of hits like “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and “Have A Good Time.”

Cohesion is the most important aspect of any album, and often the most difficult to achieve. With Surprise, Simon has once again located a meaningful mood that serves as a unifying force for the record as a whole. That spirit is conjured through the reflective and profound. “How Can You Live In The Northeast?” brings both whimsy and depth to the album. “Another Galaxy” and “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean” are songs that demonstrate Simon’s eternal introspection.

Familial bonds have colored much of Simon’s career. Some of his best music focuses on those timeless topics. Songs like “Mother and Child Reunion,” “St. Judy’s Comet,” and “Loves Me Like A Rock” perfectly capture the power of love and family. Surprise’s closing track, “Father and Daughter,” continues that tradition. The song was originally released for The Wild Thornberrys movie and subsequently received an Oscar nomination. It stands both above and along with the rest of Surprise.

Surprise is a clever mixture of sophisticated pop and lyrical beauty. Paul Simon, now in his mid-60s, is young again—and for a musician of his caliber and track record, that is quite the pleasant surprise. He is not just an intellectual and sensitive singer; he is still the wide-eyed kid from Forest Hills, Queens who is enthralled by music.

In a time when true genius is scarce, its arrival is usually met with suspicion. Simon is a genius who needs to be treasured. So much music today lacks the ability to delve beyond the simple auditory senses. If brilliant, it can touch one’s soul. And remarkably, Surprise does that. For years I have yearned for an album by Paul Simon that could reinvigorate me and transport me to a place of comfort and security.

Well, upon listening to Surprise, I am no longer a 19-year-old college student staying up too late and working too hard. Not anymore. Just as Paul Simon is young again, so am I. I’m a kid again, wearing out Simon’s records for hours on the ground floor of a typical Brooklyn brownstone.

Thanks, Paul.