Monday, 17 June 2013
Paul Simon "Surprise" (2005) (Album Review)
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“How can you live in the Northeast? How can you live in the South? How can you live on the banks of a river when the flood waters pour from the mouth? How can you be a Christian? How can you be a Jew? How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu? How can you?” “Weak as the Winter sun we enter life on Earth, names and religion come just after date of birth” “If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?” “It’s outrageous to line your pockets with the misery of the poor, outrageous the crimes some human beings must endure, it’s a blessing to wash your face in the Summer Solstice rain, it’s outrageous a man like me to stand here and complain!” “I’m an ordinary player in the key of ‘C’, and my will and pride were broken by my vanity” “I registered to vote today – felt like a fool” “A teardrop consists pf electrolytes and salt, the chemistry of crying is not concerned with blame or fault, so whose that conscience sticking on the sole of my shoe?” “I remember once in August 1993, I was wrong – and I could be wrong again. I remember one of my best friends turned enemy, so I was wrong – and I could be wrong again” “People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars” “Snowman sitting in the sun, doesn’t have time to waste, he had a little bit too much fun, and now he’s head’s erased” “Acts of kindness, like breadcrumbs in a fairytale forest, lead us past dangers as light melts the darkness, but I don’t believe and I’m not consoled, I lean closer to the fire but I’m still cold” “There is a moment, a chip in time, when leaving home is the lesser crime” “Once upon a timer I was an ocean, but now I’m a mountain range, something unstoppable in motion, nothing is different but everything’s changed” “I’m going to stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever”
Paul Simon “Surprise” (2006)
How Can You Live In The NorthEast?/Everything About It Is A Love Song/ Outrageous/Sure Don’t Feel Like Love/Wartime Prayers/Beautiful/I Don’t Believe/Another Galaxy/Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean/That’s Me/Father and Daughter
Paul Simon’s life was full of surprises between his last album (the under-rated ‘You’re The One’ in 2001). He’d fallen in love and married for the third time and become a father again at the age of 59 (that might be his daughter Lulu on the cover – that’s clearly what we’re meant to think for those of us in the know – although given how private Paul Simon is and the lack of photo credits, then again it might not). As you’d expect for such an autobiographical writer, there are lots of references to family on this album, which ,makes for a refreshing change after the ‘story songs’ of ‘You’re The One’ and ‘Capeman’ and the more world view taken on ‘Graceland’ and ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’. In fact in many ways this album takes on where ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ left off in 1973, with Paul a father still young enough to feel for his newborn child and the world he ‘s entering and afraid that he might get things wrong (this is before Paul divorces and turns ‘middle aged’ on ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, inspiring a whole new strand in his way of thinking). (One of the most moving songs here is ‘Another Galaxy’, with the newborn parent already imagining a time when his loved one will leave the nest a la ‘She’s Leaving Home’). Paul Simon is clearly an older and wiser parent this time around. References to mortality abound, with Paul’s 60th birthday inspiring another batch of songs over and above the ones on ‘You’re The One’ – to be fair Paul’s always been old before his time and has been singing about death since at least the age of 20, but the songs here are about his death rather than those of his friends, his family or his ‘generation’. The thought of becoming a father again – whilst knowing at his age how precious life is – means he isn’t taking things for granted as much this time, inspiring an album that’s as deep and complex – and indeed as beautiful - as any in his canon.
In many ways I’m glad I’ve waited till after the follow-up ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ (see News and Views 106) to fully review this album because the two really belong together as a pair. ‘Beautiful’ is an album that finds Paul debating vision after vision of the afterlife and how it will relate to him (his best image is one of ‘waiting in line’ to be ‘signed on’ while his whole essence dissolves into one phrase – ‘Is it ‘woo bop a doo wop or oom papa doo?’) This album is more concerned with whether there actually is an afterlife than with the ins and outs of what it looks like and whether the differences we have which on Earth mean we end up in the same place together or in different ones. The opening track on this album, ‘How Can You Live In The North-East?’ is all about differences, of geography and religion and how these shape our identities (where ‘name and religion come just after date of birth’). ‘Outrageous’ is a powerful song about injustice which is probably the angriest song in Paul’s back catalogue since ‘He Was My Brother’ way back in 1965 which ends in an unexpected (‘surprise!’) way with Paul sounding more like George Harrison or Cat Stevens as he places his faith in God’s bigger plan. ‘Wartime Prayers’ extends this theme, inspired by the sight of 9/11 and the Iraq War, where it’s all the ‘ordinary people’ ‘muddling through’ who are the holiest – not the religious preachers of either side who shout the loudest. The general theme of this album is that the world is a mess and there has to be someone bigger than us mere mortals to put it right – given that before this there has only ever been three Paul Simon songs that mentioned religion (the acerbic ‘Blessed’ from 1966 which attacks the errors in the Christian church, the surprisingly sombre ‘Silent Eyes’ about the persecution of jews from 1975 and the ‘one and one half wandering jews’ from ‘Hearts and Bones’ in 1983) it’s odd to hear an album from Paul where almost all these songs share this theme. Traditionally religious-themed albums come in from some flak on this website (‘Living In The Material World’ by George Harrison’; ‘An Other Cup’ by Yusuf) because the newly converted do have a tendency to cajole and bully others into thinking the same way; thankfully Paul doesn’t do that here – the closest he gets here is the ‘God will’ on ‘Outrageous’, but for the most part there’s a God for believers who believe but non-believers aren’t actually wrong.
‘Surprise’ was one of the first albums I properly reviewed, back in 2006 when it was new and I was still filling up pages for the entertainment section on the Runcorn and Widnes Weekly News. Most of the religious references in that review were cut, too, despite being the overwhelming theme of the album, which shows what an uncontroversial place Runcorn was (and probably still is). I said at the time that this album wasn’t commercial or mainstream enough to be a huge seller but that the new fascinating sound and tips of the hat to some old ones were likely to make it a fan favourite. Having leafed through the reviews on ‘Amazon’ for this album, I seem to be half-right; this album did respectably but has been rather forgotten, except for a small core of fans who consider it among Paul’s best work. I’m tempted to agree with them –the ‘Surprises’ on this album aren’t always good ones (there are more dodgy songs here than on the last batch of Simon albums), but this is certainly Paul’s most daring, adventurous, groundbreaking work for a while and it’s shame that this experiment was only modestly successful. Usually when we write about AAA stars sounding ‘modern’ on their new albums we mean that as a put-down (the best songs are timeless and shouldn’t be trapped in a timezone where only a few will hear it – something new bands never seem to get but old ones always learn eventually, often the hard way). But ‘Surprise’ is quite magnificent for updating Paul’s sound to be contemporary without robbing it of any of its ‘Paul Simon-ness’. Brian Eno deserves huge credit for this album, his choice of credit as ‘sonic landscaper’ rather than producer saying it all; Paul Simon is left to his own devices for the songs and recording, but the atmosphere has been added by someone from a slightly later, younger point of view who happens to be sympathetic with Paul’s own ideas. It’s not a plan I’d like too many of my bands to follow (just listen to how bad The Rolling Stones sounded when remixed by Don Was in an attempt to be trendy), but for this album alone it’s an interesting idea that works far better than I expected.
On the surface, this is a peaceful record, full of long aching ballads and only occasional shudders of noise. Actually, though, the more you listen to ‘Surprise’ the more you realise what a ‘surprisingly’ acerbic record it is by Paul’s standards.
While always brave enough to speak his mind and put the right people down, Paul’s never made a career out of ‘speaking out’ against injustice like CSNY or Alan Hull and yet this album is along with Neil Young’s ‘Living With War’ and Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ the only albums to properly address the post-9/11 world inbalance. Brian Eno’s exotic shimmery touches calm the bitter lyrics down a notch but this is still strong and heady stuff: ‘It’s outrageous to line your pockets off the misery of the poor’ ‘I registered to vote today – I felt like a fool’ ‘People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars’, this is not an album that minces words. I know some fans have been disappointed in this, picking out songs like the sweet ‘Father and Daughter’ or autobiographical comedy ‘That’s Me’ and wishing that Paul had written more like this – but for me an artist should always be free to speak his mind and what Paul has to say is some of the best arguments against the modern world yet written. Not every line is a classic – indeed some songs here are surprisingly poor – but there are more great couplets per verse here than even Paul’s highest average: ‘You cannot walk with the Holy if you’re just a halfway decent man’ ‘Acts of kindness, like breadcrumbs in a fairytale forest, lead us past dangers as light melts the darkness’ ‘If the answer is infinite light then why do we sleep in the dark?’ In many ways ‘Surprise’ is the most poetic, literary album so far from a singer-songwriter whose always provided us with deeper, more complex thoughts than most in songs; an album that’s born for debating, musing over and ruminating upon as much as it is enjoyable to listen to.
That said, like all of Paul’s albums since ‘Rhythm Of Saints’ it seems that Simon has been writing his albums ‘backwards’. By and large how Paul writes nowadays is by writing a melody and a full backing track and only then piecing the lyrics together phrase by phrase, bit by bit. When this technique works – as it does remarkably so on ‘Saints’, an album quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard – the effect is remarkable, as a sea of unconnected images and metaphors weave together like the dots in a pointillist painting to create a bigger picture. However, on this album – the fourth time round of using this trick counting ‘Capeman’, which tries to follow a storyline but is still largely written this same way – you are beginning to long for Paul to go back to the ‘old’ way of writing, whereby a theme and idea inspires both music and lyric. While individual lyrics here are gorgeous, as we’ve seen, they’re often linked by less inspired verses or roll off at tangents that don’t quite fit. Whilst ‘Northeast’ ‘Outrageous’ and ‘Wartime Prayers’ are every bit as good as Paul’s best writing, there are songs here such as ‘That’s Me’ ‘I Don’t Believe’ ‘Everything About It Is A Love Song’ and ‘Beautiful’ that are too complex for their own good, telling several stories at once in several different time zones and with a whole cast of characters that cut from one another before their stories are fully told. It’s like writing a poetic, beautiful script for a literary adaption for the telly – and then giving it to a sugary-drinks filled Tigger to film; the tone and speed just seem wrong. After all, what really does a melting snowman, a new born baby ‘bought from China’, a memory of a go-kart ‘sitting in the shade’ or a poverty-stricken family of four have to do with each other. The theme is that they’re all ‘beautiful’ in the eyes of the people who see them, which is kind of vague enough to work, but really – a melting snowman and a crying baby rescued from his war-torn homeworld both ‘beautiful’? Then again, the one song that tries the old and trusted path (‘Father and Daughter’) seems weak and sickly sentimental by comparison, so perhaps Paul’s done this for a reason (his next LP ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ is largely back to writing normal songs and while there are less troughs there are less peaks too). Well, what do I know anyway? I’m just an ordinary critic in the key of C, as the album would put it.
It’s a shame, though, that so many of these ‘lesser’ songs are packed away at the end where they risk diluting the album. At its best – on what in the old days would have been ‘side one’ – ‘Surprise’ is an album that takes its fair share of risks and, for the most part, they come off quite well. I’ve never heard a song like ‘Sure Don’t Feel Like Love’ before – and I probably never will again – a hiphop style dance style song that nevertheless sounds perfectly fitting for Paul’s elderly sigh of angst over past slights and hurt. The words have him betrayed when ‘one of my best friends turned enemy’ and ‘feeling like a fool’ when registering to vote because he knows no one is going to give him the direction he wants to see. A chorus of ‘Yay! Boo!’ repeated over and over should make this the worst song Paul’s ever done, but the chorus is catchy and the words alluring and hypnotic enough, with just the right amount of cynicism for the song to be one of the album highlights. A similar thing happens with the album’s other ‘best’ song ‘How Can You Live In The NorthEast?’ which floats majestically for the most part before an angry swirl of very modern synthesisers come out of nowhere as Paul recounts not the future or the present but the past, retelling the stories of ‘America’ and ‘American Tune’ a third time while sounding like he’s singing down a megaphone. It’s not a sound we expect (surprise!) at all and yet its not grafted onto the song to make it sound interesting, it fully befits the rage and nostalgia Paul feels in the song. ‘Outrageous’ is a song that maybe takes things too far, with its religious coda and its self-deprecating lines about trying to get fit and ‘trying to paint my hair the colour of mud’ – but at its heart this is a conversational style ‘street’ song every bit as 2006 as anything any rap star ever did. By and large it’s the moments when Paul plays it safe on this album that it doesn’t really work but the strides into the unexpected are almost all superb.
One other reason for this album’s success is that Paul has a really great cast of musicians around him for this album. A two year reunion with Art Garfunkel, singing all the old hits to a rather anodyne backing if the live album souvenir is anything to go by, seems to have encouraged Paul to go all-out for this album with a youthful energy missing from his past few records. And yet when you actually read the credits this album is largely made by a collection of ‘old friends’: drummer Steve Gadd who hadn’t been around for a few albums, Vincent Nguini from the ‘Graceland’ days and the Jessy Dixon Singers – last heard of singing ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’, along with occasional big-name guests like Herbie Hancock. The biggest ‘surprise’, though, is how much of this ‘new’ sound stems from Paul himself: he may surround himself with young guitar players on tour but almost all the very contemporary sounding guitar parts on this album come from Paul himself, tackling not just the acoustic but electric, nylon-string and what sounds like a flamenco guitar at one part. Give or take Nguini’s occasional contribution on the last, most traditional sounding song all the guitar parts on this album are by Paul, which is ‘surprising’ both because of his hand complaint (painful calcium deposits that left him unable to play on his albums at all in 1975 and only slowly in parts thereafter) and because they sound so fresh, so jagged, so aware, so now (or 2006 anyways). Paul is back to leaving things to his band by the time of ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’, which is a shame because Paul has always been an under-rated guitarist (just check out his Mark Knopfler-meets-Nirvana playing on ‘Another Galaxy’!
For all it’s ‘new’ sound, though, are still a few nods to the past, perhaps because of that long-delayed tour with Art Garfunkel (which apparently healed a lot of rifts, but that said see our review of the song ‘Sure Don’t Feel Like Love’) and the re-issue of all Paul’s solo albums on CD with bonus tracks, as comprehensive and career-full collection as any record company has made to date. ‘Father and Daughter’ is a long-delayed follow-up to ‘St Judy’s Comet’, the lovely ballad from ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ in 1973 for Harper Simon (who starred alongside his dad in the ‘One Trick Pony’ film and is now an impressive singer-songwriter in his own right). ‘That’s Me’ is a jokey attempt at autobiography, limiting Paul’s life to a few short verses which actually tell us less about Paul than the other songs on the album, accompanied by an embarrassingly young photograph in the CD booklet. ‘Everything About It Is A Love Song’ is a looser but more successful attempt at the same idea, recalling that ‘if I ever get back to the 20th century again’ (i.e. back to the past) then ‘I have some debts to pay via an ‘open book of vanishing memory, with its catalogue of regrets’, one of Paul’s best lines of the album. Meanwhile ‘I Don’t Believe’ recalls the songs about ecology and damaging the planet from ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ and, as we’ve seen, ‘Outrageous’ is the most passionate, full blooded protest song since ‘He was My Brother’, written and recorded before even ‘The Sound Of Silence’ was a hit.
Overall, then, ‘Surprise’ is one of Paul Simon’s very best ‘recent’ albums (it’s always hard to work out when an artist’s ‘recent’ work begins, so for our purposes we’ll just say it’s his best album since ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’). Taking such huge big gambles ought to see the album fall more times than usual and indeed this album is still pretty hit-and-miss, but actually it’s the more ‘normal’ songs here that sound undercooked and poorly developed. At it’s best this is a moving, magical album about the responsibilities of looking after a newborn child in an often scary world, seen through older eyes that are already worrying about the ‘next stage’ and how much time is left. Growing old is always something most rock and roll stars try to avoid in their songs, but Paul has always been one of those people who seem to be ‘old’ before their time and it makes perfect sense that mortality is his biggest theme in songwriting right now, a conversation finally pulling forward into the spotlight after various brief debates on the theme ever since ‘The Leaves That Are Green’ in 1966 (‘I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long!’) Thematically this album is exactly what I’d expect from Paul Simon in his 64th year. It’s the music and the styles that surprise, an updating of a sound that’s always been updated every few years but perhaps never quite as radically or as suddenly as this. The other album themes are often a surprise too: The Earth is being ravaged, old rivalries and hurts (both the narrator’s own and the planet’s) are still raging on stronger than ever and there’s a battle going on between the light and darkness where either side could win (a debate that continues on ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’, although the sheer amount of love songs, unusual for Paul, suggest the light is winning). Would that most artists still had this much to say heading towards ‘retirement’ age. Yes this isn’t a ‘perfect’ album – anything that contains the mawkishly awful ‘Father and Daughter’ is going to get 10/10 from me – but it has a lot more going than anyone had a right to expect after a ‘difficult’ series of albums and a flop musical and this album’s general sense of purpose, confidence and occasional nuggets of brilliance is perhaps the biggest and most welcome ’surprise’ of all. ‘Suprise’ might not have been Paul’s most successful record, it might not have any hit singles and it might not have shaped the world like ‘Graceland’ (despite being an undoubtedly superior record), but in it’s own quiet, humble way ‘Surprise’ is a mature masterpiece that debates the issues of growing older and approaching death without letting any past expectations or styles limit it in anyway. Like Johnny Cash’s ‘American’ albums recorded in his 70s, it’s a dignified and daring approach from an artist whose already done so much good he could be forgiven for taking the easy way out.
‘How Can You Live In The North East?’ is probably my favourite song from the record, a series of rhetorical questions about how much environment shapes the person we all become. It’s a very simple but very clever idea that questions prejudice and whether we really can judge over people by such things as their home town and religion when these things are, by and large, beyond our control. To those who live in another different part of the country the influences and thoughts of another location – however close – will always be a mystery because you can only ever have one ‘identity’ or place of belonging however many times you move house. Those in the South will never truly ‘know’ what it is to be a Southerner and ditto the other way around and everywhere in between. Similarly when Paul moves on to ‘How can you be a Christian? How can you be a Jew? A Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu?’ he’s attacking the idea that movements are made up of people who all flock to the same ideas for the same reasons – just from AAA bands alone we cover quite a range of religions from Christians, Jews and Muslims and a few exceptions aside (such as Cat Stevens aka Yusuf’s songs deliberately written for his Muslim-founded school or George Harrison’s work with the Radna Krishna movement’) not much of it is overtly religious. In Paul’s clever lyrics ‘names and religion come just after date of birth’, a label a baby is probably oblivious to but one that will follow them around for the rest of their lives (we stall talk about the Beatles’ Mersey beginnings, for instance, even though they’ve at most only visited Liverpool in the past 50 years or talk about Cat Stevens’ life as a Christian long before he found a new life for himself as a Muslim because it was still an important part of who they were). Following this comes an ‘inner voice’, the human capacity to think and ask questions, each of us learning the same riddles and mysteries of life in turn and still none of us, all these generations on, with any more concrete answers. Hinting at the religious conviction to come, Paul asks ‘if the answer is infinite light, then why do we sleep in the dark?’ – which is either an attack on the unconverted (which would seem odd given Paul’s own ambiguous religious feelings in his songs) or the fact that if there is a creator they never tell their creations what their purpose is (we’ve been here before with ‘Proof’ from ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ where ‘faith is an island in a setting sun but proof is the bottom line for everyone’). Wrapped up into these philosophical lyrics are a present-day setting on American Independence Day (also my birthday to anyone who fancies emailing me a virtual cake on the day) where ‘fireworks turn fireflies’, the image neatly turning all our eyes up towards the skies to wonder what’s ‘out there’ in the ‘heavens’, even on a ‘happy-go-lucky 4th Of July’. The icing on the cake, though, is the fabulous ending around the three minute mark which wakens the rather somnambulant song with a screaming cacophony of drums, strummed guitars and electronic whizzing things as Paul recounts how lucky he’s been to be born an American ‘only three generations off the boat’ but that he still feels like a traveller ‘wearing my father’s old coat’. There but for the grace of God (if there is a God...) this song seems to be saying. A memorable song with a clever, quirky riff and the most suitable electronic ‘landscaping’ from Brian Eno, this is a song that really grows on you and sounds remarkably contemporary despite featuring all the usual thoughtful, poetic Paul Simon ideas (frankly, if all contemporary music was like this even I would listen to it once in a while...)
‘Everything About It Is A Love Song’ is a bit of a curio, an unsettled, confused song made up of lots of parts stapled together (which is unusual for Paul’s writing and more like something John Lennon or David Crosby would do). It starts as a slow, relaxed crawl of a song with Paul the songwriter taking a walk to unlock his imagination. Along the way he thinks about the highs and lows of his life and decides to ‘sit down, shut up, think about God and wait for the hour of my rescue’. It’s as if Paul is telling us how he wrote the ‘other’ songs on this album. A sudden bursts of electronic pulses and some icky modern drumming (which doesn’t sound like proper drumming but like someone tapping two artificial sticks together) ushers in a whole new section about how to be human is to err and make mistakes and how each additional mistake causes bigger problems and drives people apart. The title of the album, ‘Surprise’, comes from the image of the narrator at a birthday party, all mistakes forgotten, blowing out the candles on a cake while his friends call out ‘surprise surprise surprise’ (the irony being everyone has memories like these everywhere, so it’s not actually a ‘surprise’ at all). After this Paul goes back to his relaxed style, ruminating on reincarnation and whether hell come back ‘as a tree or a cow’ (I’m going to be a squirrel – in fact I’m pretty sure I was last time around...) while giving us an ambiguous message about ‘which’ place he’s going to when he dies (‘Far above the golden clouds, the darkness vibrates’). All this thinking comes to no answers and adds up to the simple phrase ‘The Earth is blue’, but whether that’s physically, emotionally, purposefully, accidentally or all of the above we never find out. Nor do we find out why ‘everything about it is a love song’ – paying off old debts doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that takes place in a love song, nor does coming back to life as a cow (however moooving that would be). A real puzzle of a song – it sounds so simple and graceful, with its single sloping relaxed melody, but underneath the surface we get answers the colour of mud – mud OK!
Talking of mud, ‘Outrageous’ was the album’s single and finds Paul seemingly starting a typical protest song, rallying at the rich for the uneven economic divide, the poor diet and sarcastic put-downs on show in public schools and the sheer injustice experienced by everyone everywhere. Of course, before this all gets a bit too Michael Jackson and ‘Earth Song’ and Paul pretends he has all the answers he wipes the rug out from underneath us all (‘It’s outrageous a man like me stand up here and complain!’) This good will continues as Paul tells us the pointless things he’s been trying to do to stay young, painting his colour of ‘mud’ and doing ‘900 sit-ups a day’ (which is, I hope, a comical exaggeration – either that or Paul should sue his personal trainer). To be honest, good humoured as this section is (‘Its outrageous, I can’t stop thinking about the things I’m thinking of, anyone care what I say? NO!’ recalling The Moody Blues’ ‘I’m Just A Singer In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’) its a shame that Paul didn’t write a full protest song anyway: we haven’t heard him this angry for a long time and his outrage at people ‘lining pockets from the misery of the poor’ is about to become a lot more topical in the post-0credit crunch times than Paul would ever have known at the time (ATOS and the Coalition, I’m looking at you!) The spiky guitar work, largely on one note, is a revelation too – surely, this is Dave Davies or Pete Townshend playing this part not Paul Simon? Fantastic! That said, the song ‘Outrageous’ turns into is still pretty likeable, with its chorus ‘whose gonna love you when your looks are gone?’ talking about the ‘real’ message of life and the throwaway line that its a new-found marriage that allows him the ‘blessing to rest my head in the shelter of your love’ (‘Shelter of your arms’ is a phrase that nearly made it into so many Paul Simon songs – starting with ‘When Numbers Get Serious’ in 1983 – you almost cheer that its nearly found its way into a song at last). It’s the ending, though, that takes you by surprise, even if you were paying attention through the last two songs. There’s no doubt here about ‘whose gonna love you when your looks are gone?’ – Paul answers confidently ‘God will, like he waters the flowers on your windowsill’ (but presumably only if you leave your windows open). Paul humbles himself further, ‘an ordinary player in the key of C’ (hang on, as a fan I know that line isn’t right – not least because I’m pretty sure this part of the song is in E) whose ‘will was broken by my pride and my vanity’. We haven’t Paul this humbled since the rather troubled romantic songs on ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ and even they had more ego per song than this whole album does. Now, I’m not Paul Simon and I don’t have a hope of knowing what’s going on in his head but – surely – some religious experience has happened here since the ‘You’re The One’ album of 2001? As private as any of the AAA crew, Paul doesn’t often give interviews and when he does he wouldn’t talk about a subject like this but surely, surely something happened in the early millennium to create such a huge sea change of thinking?
However ‘Sure Don’t Feel Like Love’ is all about being confused and never quite knowing if that dig someone’s just made at you and destroyed your confidence was intentional or not. Another astonishingly modern-sounding song, with a pulsating keyboard riff that sounds like morse code and some more surprisingly grungy guitar (apparently by Paul again although it doesn’t sound like the Paul Simon of the past) offering up an entirely new sound that’s the funkiest Paul Simon recording on record since ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ (with Steve Gadd coming up with a similarly inventive and OTT drum part). Paul even murmurs into the mike before properly beginning the first line, sounding like a hiphop or a rap star before launching into a diatribe about going to register to vote and all the time ‘feeling like a fool’. Paul doesn’t elaborate and in actual fact he’s too early for the UK’s 2010 election (when after getting a coalition that no one voted for everybody felt like fools whatever their vote) but as an American presumably he means the 2004 election (when Bush Junior got in for the second time on the back of 9/11 almost as controversially – and illegally – as the first time). Paul then goes all Jefferson Starship on us by trying to think about teardrops in a purely scientific way (their line in 1974: ‘A tear in the hand of a Western man will tell you about salt and water and carbon’; Paul’s line ‘a teardrop consists of electrolytes and salt’) and how chemistry is ‘not concerned with blame or fault’ (so why, then, does he feel so guilty for making someone cry?) The large voice of conscience to Paul ‘feels like a threat’ and not like love at all, however well intended and that even a ‘corn muffin feels more like love’. You’d accept all this as a lover’s tiff – as indeed it might still be – but something about the timing of this song and the line about ‘how in 1993 one of my best friends turned enemy’. The only thing publicly that happened to Paul that year as the ‘Paul Simon Songbook’, an excellent multipart radio documentary series that rated very highly on our ‘best AAA docs list’ a few years back and which featured a very controversial (and rather angry) series of interviews with one Art Garfunkel. By the sound of what he’s said since, Paul wasn’t expecting this and in 2006 when ‘Surprise’ came out had just finished a tour with Art that was the longest the pair had spent in each other’s company since 1969. Admittedly, this could be about anyone (perhaps Paul’s postman was rude to him one day?!) but that’s my guess at who ‘my best friend turned enemy’ really is. Paul goes on to say ‘I remember once in a load-out in Birmingham’ and then interrupts himself – I’d love to know the end of this tale and whether its the same incident or a different one. A fascinating song, on which Paul sounds quite different to anything he’s ever done before, even the ‘Yay! Boo!’ chorus which looks deeply stupid on paper seems to work on record. After all, this song needs to be different – its about the side of ourselves that we always do keep hidden, festering over implied and deliberate slights and never letting up, a sound that this angular, bitter, gritty, relentless song captures superbly. Easily the best hiphop song of the decade (not that there’s much competition, mind...)
‘Wartime Prayers’ is a moment for quiet reflection. Or at least it should be, as Paul sings ‘all that is changed’ now that religion is central to every debate in the post 9/11 world and now that an ‘enemy’ (to America at least) is discussed in terms of religious doctrine instead of political influence. Paul doesn’t come down on either side but seems to suggest that any religious leader trying to teach people to wage war against others are ‘lunatics and liars’ (most passionately American fans assume it was Osama Bin laden Paul;’s singing about here; actually it could just as well be about the blow-em-up speeches made by American Christians in the wake of 9/11. Like ‘Outrageous’, Paul is feeling too human to sit here and pretend to know better so instead we get another second verse where ‘I don’t pretend that I’m a genius with a mastermind marketing plan’ and he has to ‘rid my heart of envy and cleanse my soul of rage’ before he can speak clearly. That said, Paul can still be sympathetic and he empathises with those in a suddenly changed world going through ‘difficult times’ where the only thing that helps is inner ‘prayer’, even though it was outer prayers that caused such rifts in the first place. This is a clever, complex song that, fittingly for a depiction of such a topsy-turvy, un-navigable world, has a melody that can’t sit still and sounds deeply unsure about how to progress, walking into dead-ends and going back on itself several times. The only part of the song that stands up straight, as it were, is the second verse about ‘how you cannot walk with the holy if you’re just a halfway decent man’ – in other words the only thing Paul’s narrator is sure about is how unsure he is. The song then ends on the very ambiguous message of a mother calming her crying baby to sleep with a ‘wartime prayer’ – we don’t know which ‘side’ she’s on or what religion the prayer is for, the message here being is it right to think such vengeful, hateful thoughts, even if they soothe us all? Paul doesn’t know the answers and the song simply drifts away with the image still hanging in the air, but its one hell of a question and its very cleverly asked. In retrospect I’m surprised that its this song from the album that most fans agree is the album highlight – to me it seems less immediate than the others, less finished and complete and more ambiguous. That said, I still admire it greatly – no one else but Paul (or maybe CSN) would be able to come up with a song that manages to be this healing and yet at the heart of this anti-religious without stepping on anybody’s toes.
‘Beautiful’ is light relief by comparison, although only by comparison – this unusual, quirky track still takes in the ideas of troubled refugees, melting snowmen and past memories that can never come about again. Let’s start with the last image first – even if I didn’t know that Paul had recently become a father again I’d probably guess it from the song’s longest verse, the third, which is absolutely the sound of a man remembering his own childhood by seeing life through the eyes of his newborn and how they experience things. The verse ends ominously with how the family ‘better keep an eye on the children in the pool’ but there’s no awful twist here, no hideous drowning that disrupts family life forever – instead it seems that this line is Paul remembering the comfort of having someone else be responsible for him. The opening verse is peculiar too – a ‘snowman’ who ‘doesn’t have time to waste’ because after a bit of sunshine ‘his head’s erased’, reeled off like some jokey Aesop parable (was the snowman really having ‘fun’ in the sunshine though? Surely he was having fun when it was snowing?) Sounding like a ditty he’s made up to please his children, Paul turns serious, seemingly making up a story about adopting a refugee from BanglaDesh named Emily and later two more un-named babies from China and Kosovo. It’s as if as a new parent (after a 35 year gap) Paul is desperate to protect all the world’s children from all sorts of tragedies and perhaps show how nationality really doesn’t matter (see the lyrics to ‘NorthEast’ once again). I’m confused though – I’m willing to accept that all babies everywhere are ‘beautiful’ to those who love them, the poor baby at the end who ‘cried all night, could not sleep, his eyes black dark and deep’ adds an ominous air to the song and yet he, too, is ‘beautiful’. Are all children beautiful, then, despite their rotten upbringings and not just their geography? Is he more beautiful for having seen so much hatred so early in his little life? Or am I reading too much into songs again?!
‘I Don’t Believe’ is cross-faded in from the last track and is another uncomfortable, angular song that sounds like several stapled together without the typical ‘flow’ of Paul’s work. This is the song about kindness ‘acting like breadcrumbs in a fairytale forest’, which is as poetic and lovely as any opening to any song, and yet doesn’t fit with the rest of the storm about an Earth in chaos and approaching it’s dying days. ‘The universe loves drama’ sings Paul, recounting the violent manner in which it was made before diverting into the old 10cc joke about getting a call from his ‘broker’ who informs him he’s ‘broke’ and a guardian angel ‘teasing’ him by showing him how wonderful life can be despite the turbulence of the present where the narrator is alone and lonely. The central message to this song is not about belief in turning things around in life (the title comes from a throwaway line about the narrator not believing that love can disappear so quickly), but in death. In his clearest cut description of the afterlife to date (although more’s coming in the next album’s song ‘The Afterlife’) the narrator wonders if heart is ‘part of the mist’ that fills up his heart and then suddenly vanishes; whether life is a ‘whim’ of some creator who doesn’t really care about the people he creates (like me on the Sims game when I re-incarnate the Spice Girls by locking them in a room with no doors) and that when life gets too tough ‘maybe that’s the exit I’m looking for’. There’s a twist, though: the last verse is back to religious debate again, with ‘pantomime prayers to the hands of a clock’ which suggests that although faith in an afterlife can give hope to those who need it, belief in it can also result in acts like 9/11 where terrorists (aka freedom fighters depending whose country they’re bombing) can end up doing anything they want in the present world, confident there’ll be a life for them in the next. Paul ends the song with a plea, which is rare for him: ‘I don’t believe we were born to be sheep in a flock’, which is quite affecting. That said, there’s no one strong melody on this song which does tend to drift from one idea to another without really coming to life and the switches between ideas, which also sees a switch between key signatures and Paul’s ‘evil’ and ‘angelic’ voices is often abrupt and difficult to listen to. Like many songs on this album, this is a brave stab at doing something different and controversial, but unlike most of the others there isn’t a strong enough ‘song’ here in its own right for the effect to quite come off the way it was intended.
‘Another Galaxy’ seems to exist outside the album timeline, dealing with a set of fictional characters (perhaps...) and a tragedy that’s unique to the family rather than the world at large. In fact, the song even starts by sounding like someone’s pressed the ‘pause’ button (actually Brian Eno with an electronic effect), perhaps symbolising the way the world ‘stops’ for a family when their daughter walks out on them. A modern ‘She’s Leaving Home’, this departure takes place just before her Wedding Day and like that song finds time to be sympathetic to both sides. The song’s stately chorus tells us ‘there is a moment, a chip in time, when leaving home is the lesser crime’ – a very clever line that says so much, especially when the character spies a new life for herself and knows she will regret it if she never gets to experience it. She regrets it almost instantly, suffering terrible dreams filled with guilty metaphors of clouds and hurricanes, but for all that she knows – and we know – that her mind is made up and there is no going back. All these songs are accompanied in the lyric booklet by little pictures, the majority of which have only very loose connections, but this one is a classic: a framed photograph, which clearly was once a treasured possession, of a family together which is now lying in the dust as a footprint walks off, the family split forever. One of the album’s strongest tracks, I’m fairly sure this is Paul’s song of guilt both about walking out on his first marriage (a trauma he was still re-living in the ‘One-Trick Pony’ film, even getting his own son in to play his fictional and similarly abandoned son) as he walks into a third one and his thoughts that, just as he had to get used to his first born growing up, so he will with his second 35 years later. Like all the best parents, Paul openly sobs at the prospect but doesn’t try to get the daughter in this song to change her mind, supporting her decision to walk into a new life of adventure even though it breaks his heart to see her go. Paul’s vocals across this song is excellent, by far his best on the album, a strident lead vocal and a quieter, humbler harmony vocal both on the edge of tears and sounding like Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ but with both verses sung at the same time. Another fascinating track, the equal of almost anything in Paul’s amazing back catalogue.
Which is just as well because the three songs that end the album are among his worst. ‘Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean’ is the best of the three, though, a kind of summation of the album’s themes that varies from the sheer scale and majesty of the universe compared to the smallness of man (‘something unstoppable set into motion’) and the mundaneness of life compared to the extraordinary sights of nature. The two become matched somewhere here, the narrator figuring that ‘once upon a time I was an ocean’ and that he mattered more than he does now, his life disrupted only by the bad things in life (signified by a letter from home, the handwriting ‘fragile and strange’). It sounds more like a Ray Davies song than a Paul Simon one, but the backing is pure ‘Surprise’ style – lots of booming jarring electronics and an uncomfortable switch between two melody lines that really don’t go together. For the most part Brian Eno’s landscaping works on this album by making everything sound bigger and more mysterious than usual, but here it just makes what’s actually quite a sweet song sound like everything else around in the charts in 2006. There are some good lines here, such as old hymn books causing memories to ‘come fluttering down, like leaves of emotion’ and the central idea that after going through a family crisis ‘nothing is different, but everything is changed’. Unfortunately, though, the link is never made between the poor hapless narrator and the verses about the creation of the Earth and there’s no real resolution to the song to tie the two together. The production also sounds unusually rushed, one of Paul’s twin vocals coming in a beat too early in the first verse and the mistake not being mixed out (compared to the rest of his excellent singing across the album he sounds at odds here, as if he doesn’t know the song that well or wrote it for someone else to sing in a different key).
‘That’s Me’ is a song that simply plays with and teases the listener so often the end result isn’t always worth sitting through. At first the song is quite witty – Paul says he’s giving us his ‘life story’, but its a limited one based on what he wants to give us, reduced to flashes in time that simply sound like the events in nearly everyone’s lives rather than Paul’s directly (’11 months old, dangling from my daddy’s knee’ and ‘there I go, it’s my graduation, I’m picking up a bogus degree!’ – it might be worth pointing out that despite the image of Simon and Garfunkel as ‘nice young college boys’ Paul never took any higher education and was too busy making flop records with Tico and the Triumphs at the age most of his peers were getting degrees, though he’s had a few ‘honorary’ ones since). There’s an even weirder third verse that switches from ‘first love’ to ‘a black bear running through the forest’ and the two somehow getting mixed, the narrator staring into the bear’s eyes and seeing the ‘future of beauty and sorrow’ he surely found from his true love? Chances are none of these memories are of Paul at all, no matter how many times he declares ‘that’s me!’, with the most personal line in the whole song probably the near-closing one about how ‘forgotten is a long time’ and how hopefully something of his life will be remembered by someone in the future. The backing is more inventive here, especially near the end, when the song turns into an extended noisy drum-based jam that would be what ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ would be like recorded by a ‘modern’ percussion band. A swirling mass of noise, its arguably a lot more interesting than the actual song, which is a cheeky diversion from the song most fans are probably expecting. After all, almost every other Paul Simon song tells the ‘That’s Me’ story in various chapters and from various points of view and timescales – actually ‘That’s Me’ is probably the least personal story Paul’s written since ‘The Myth Of Fingerprints’ or maybe even ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, a smokescreen to fool us all. A clever idea, with some nice touches, but its not enough to sustain a whole song – not on this album, anyway, where almost all the other songs are jam-packed with metaphors and images.
The album then closes on a very weak note indeed with the mawkish ‘Father and Daughter’. Most songs about newborn children are pretty sickly and Paul is one of the few songwriters who didn’t fall into the trap the first time round (‘St Judy’s Comet’ is a lullaby for son Harper, but its an imaginative one with self-mocking humour where ‘your famous daddy looks so dumb’ for not being able to sing his boy to sleep). ‘Father and Daughter’ sounds like every other ‘father and offspring’ song, promising to keep them safe from harm and how much he loves her. Sweet, and moving for daughter Lulu I’m sure but not that interesting for the rest of us (although its other offspring Adrian Simon who stars on this song, adding a lovely high falsetto that shows he’s been listening closely to his dad’s work and would make even Art Garfunkel proud). As ever, though, there’s a couple of memorable lines (the narrator standing guard ‘like a postcard of a golden Retriever’ which, of course, isn’t as fallible as a real dog) and a strong guitar hook (this time played by Paul and Vincent Nguini together) that almost makes this a good song. To be honest, though, the rest of ‘Surprise’ has been full of ‘surprises’, so it’s a great shame that it’s Paul’s most ‘obvious’ generic song in years that both concludes the album and was chosen as the lead single (where it strangely became more popular than the album as a whole – some people have no taste). This is no ‘St Judy’s Comet’, that’s for sure, there’s no moment that makes you smile or really truly believe in the fatherly love (Paul’s vocal on his earlier song is delightful, full of shades of hope, fear and courage – this one is merely ‘sung’) and you wonder why becoming a father at such an older, wiser age didn’t inspire a better song. Ah well, I’d have been more lenient of it if the rest of the album hadn’t have been so good and inventive – certainly it’s a lot better than the worst moments from last record ‘You’re The One’ (‘Pigs, Sheep and Wolves’ especially) so perhaps the rest of the record has simply spoilt us.
Well, I’ve been given all I wanted, only three albums past the classic ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’, Paul’s harvested and he’s planted, and all he really needed was a lick of paint. Back in the immediate pre-‘Graceland’ years Paul’s record sales were tumbling despite making some of his best work (‘One Trick Pony’ and ‘Hearts and Bones’) before he reinvented himself with a record that was quite unlike any other made. In 2006 ‘Surprise’ did the same, making Paul sound modern and contemporary, while embracing songs that were more opaque than normal and led into deep discussions about death and what the lessons learnt on Earth might be. It’s a discussion we’d been hearing in bits all Paul’s career (unlike some Paul Simon records, it’s easy to believe that this is the same writer behind ‘The Sound Of Silence’) but has now magically turned into if not quite a whole record then 9/11ths of it. I can’t say I love this record as much as the truly life-changing Paul Simon works out there (‘Rhythm Of the Saints’ ‘Hearts and Bones’ ‘Rhymin’ Simon’, heck even ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’), but this is still a massive return to form that deserved to win more respect and better sales. ‘Surprise’ is full of surprises galore, re-shaping and re-moulding Paul’s usual sound into something quite new, not in a desperate do-something-different way but in a manner perfectly in keeping with what came before. Paul has softened this approach slightly on his most recent album ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’, continuing the same religious and afterlife discussions but without quite as much reliance on a modern, contemporary sound. I’m not sure if that’s a shame or not – I’d hate for every Paul Simon record to sound like this one. But there’s no doubting the new life Brian Eno’s techniques breathed into Paul Simon during this record or the sheer brilliance of this album’s standout songs ‘How Can You Live In The North East?’ ‘Outrageous’ ‘Sure Don’t Feel Like Love’ ‘Wartime Prayers’ and ‘Another Galaxy’, all five of them songs to rate alongside Paul’s very best work. The other six songs might pale by comparison, but even they – for the most part – try something new and daring and, considering he was 64 when he made this record, that willingness to try out new sounds might well be the biggest ‘surprise’ of them all. Overall rating – 7/10
Simon and Garfunkel/solo:
'Wednesday Morning 3AM' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/news-views-and-music-issue-42-simon-and.html
'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-7-simon-and-garfunkel-parsley.html
'Paul Simon' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/news-views-and-music-issue-124-paul.html
'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-56-paul-simon-there-goes-rhymin.html
‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/paul-simon-still-crazy-after-all-these.html
'One Trick Pony' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-78-paul-simon-one-trick-pony.html
'Hearts and Bones' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-85-paul-simon-hearts-and-bones.html
'Rhythm Of The Saints' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/review-94-paul-simon-rhythm-of-saints.html
'So Beautiful, Or So What?' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/news-views-and-music-issue-107-paul.html