Paul Simon's Surprise! (A Review)
First, let me start off by saying that I am a HUGE Paul Simon fan. I own almost everything he's put out in his solo career. I even have a couple of recordings from the Simon and Garfunkel days, though I find that Art tends to hold Paul back when they play together. (I don't think Art is very good at deviating from the script as it were...) It's a bit ironic though because I don't think that Paul could have done what he did in the beginning without Art. Art seemed to give him some cover to overcome his nervousness about performing in public. But that's another topic. Today I'd like to review Simon's latest (to date) album: Surprise!
The song writing and lyrics pick up where You're The One left off, six years previous. But the music has taken a turn for the worse in many cases. Brian Eno's "effects" have an overall effect of lessoning the musical and lyrical impact on too many tracks.
To be fair, I am not familiar with Eno's other work, but tend to be no fan of techno and computerized muzak. I like real music played by real musicians. I think the biggest problem I really have with this album is that it's not Paul Simon. That's OK by itself because it is a collaboration, so I expect some new aspects and approaches to the music. But in the case of this album it seems like Paul doesn't even fit in with many of his own songs, and that's a problem.
Lets face it, just about every piece of music with a synthesized, mechanical sound is destined to be hopelessly dated five to ten years later. And that's a sad thought when taken in context with the larger part of Simon's work. He has written songs that are classic and sound fresh today as the day they were written, but I doubt very much we will say that of any of the tracks on Surprise!.
Think of You Can Call Me Al. It's a really great song, and an excellent price of writing, but the cheesy synthesized horn sounds pretty much ensure it will be passed over as little more than a song that was "a hit in the 80's."
That being said, it is a testament to Paul Simon's skill and talent that there are still a few gems in the ruble that is Surprise!.
Here's the play-by-play:
1). How can you live in the Northeast?
This track has gotten a lot of coverage as being "a song about 9/11" but there's Hurricane Katrina in there as well. In fact, it's really a song about life and tragedy and believing that things will and do get better, even if we have some hard times along the way.
The sound is very dark compared to much of Simon's work, but very appropriate given the lyric content. Even the Eno effect works well on this track. Partly because it's subdued, and partly because it meshes well with the nature of the topic set by the opening 2 verses:
"We heard the fireworks
Rushed out to watch the sky,
Happy go lucky, fourth of July
How can you live in the Northeast?
How can you live in the South?
How can you build on the banks of a river
When the flood water pours from the mouth?"
There's a great little jam at the end rocks out. And it's here that Simon gives us the answer:
"I've been given all I wanted,
Only three generations off the boat.
I've harvested and I've planted.
I'm wearing my father's old coat"
In essence, what a great country America is, full of opportunity and prosperity. So great that it makes the hardships worth it in the end. That bit about wearing his father's old coat adds such great perspective to it as well - a sort of nod of the hat to those who've come before.
2). Everything About It Is a Love Song.
Great vocals & lyrics, but some of the guitar effects are distracting. The first drum beat works well to change the feeling of the tempo, even though he is singing at the same tempo. This is a cool effect. Then it goes south. It sounds too much like a rave and I don't see Paul Simon hanging out at too many raves! The lyrics go south around there too:
"We don't mean to mess things up
But mess them up we do
And then it's "Oh, I'm sorry"
Here's a smiling photograph of love it was new
At a birthday party"
The rave ends and we're back to beautiful poetic lyrics about nature and shooting thoughts into future - great visual, nice guitar.
"Early December, and brown as a sparrow
Frost creeping over the pond
I shoot a thought into the future
And it flies like an arrow
Through my lifetime, and beyond"
I actually like this song. A lot. It's got a great beat and the drum machine sound actually compliments it nicely. The funky guitar helps in that greatly. It almost sounds like two distinct songs woven together. But they sound woven, and not slammed together, so it works well.
The second song part comes in the form of the chorus with an African sounding guitar part where Simon sings:
"Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?"
Most of the lyrics are just fun nonsense lyrics:
"But I'm tired, 900 sit-ups a day.
I'm painting my hair the color of mud, mud, OK?
I'm tired, tired, anybody care what I say? NO!
Painting my hair the color of mud."
But that's OK because the music is just fun too. At the end however, the song takes on a decidedly spiritual influence. In Simon's usual beautifully poetic self deprecating humility:
"Tell me, who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?
God will, like he waters the flowers on the window sill.
Take me, I'm an ordinary player in the key of C,
And my will was broken by my pride and my vanity"
4). Sure Don’t Feel Like Love.
Cool rhythm, but the electronic effect makes it feel sterile and hard. Again most of the lyrics are nonsense or silly
"No joke, no joke
Some chicken and a corn muffin well that feels more like love"
Then it gets stupid and ravy again with lots of yays, boos and woos. The song ends with a lengthy verse about being wrong. He sings about one of his best friends turning enemy and other universal experiences. But he also sings:
"I remember once in August 1993
I was wrong, and I could be wrong again"
.... Hmmm... I wonder what that's about.
5). Wartime Prayers.
It has a Chant-like quality reminiscent of Quiet off of You're The One, but not as good. Acoustic guitar line is beautiful, but writing seems too forced; seems like a pressured response to the war on terror. Still it is much better than Sting or Jewel's writings on the topic.
I honestly don't know why artists write something like This War (Sting) and America (Jewel) mentioned above. I like the vast majority of their work, but when they write something explicitly political and lopsided it alienates a certain amount of their audience and dates the material.
The best songwriters, like Simon, will write more implicit or at least more balanced lyrics and paint with a more subtle brush. This allows the material to stand up over time.
Back to War Time Prayers. The song does finish strong though, in a style very like something off You're The One - Once again reflective and poetic on the larger scale:
"I'm trying to tap into some wisdom,
Even a little drop will do.
I want to rid my heart of envy
And cleanse my soul of rage
Before I'm through."
This song lives up to its name. It is both humorous and touching.
"Snowman sittin' in the sun doesn't have time to waste
He had a little bit too much fun
Now his head's erased"
"We brought a brand new baby back from Kosovo
That was nearly seven years ago
He cried all night, could not sleep
His eyes were bright, dark and deep"
This is easily one of the gems off the album. I think I like this song so much because there is little techno effect to distract, except the robotic high-hat cymbal in the back ground but the beautiful guitars parts more than make up for it. This song is also closest to the material on Graceland or Rhythm of the Saints than any other on the album.
7). I Don’t Believe.
This track has a perfect fade intro from Beautiful. Lyrically it is very similar to The Teacher off You're The One.
"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 cold"
There's the trademark Simon wit also:
"I got a call from my broker
The broker informed me I'm broke
I was dealing my last hand of poker
My cards were useless as smoke"
8). Another Galaxy.
I have to say that the sonic landscape in this song is actually pretty cool, but again distracts from the moody lead guitar intro. I mean, it works, but I'd really like to hear some more guitar.
Once again the techno back-beat lessons effect of acoustic guitar passage, but the juxtaposition of doo-wop chord progression in the guitar with sort of techno background radiation works well... there's a definite give and take on this one.
The lyrics really aren't anything special on this one though. It's a story about a woman running away on her wedding day. It's poetic and nice, but nothing too revealing and a pretty straight forward story.
9). Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean.
Musically, there are only a few annoying effects and this is otherwise a great song. Another gem. It's a masterpiece of songwriting. It flows quite freely between the mundane:
"Found a room in the heart of the city, down by the bridge
Hot plate and TV and beer in the fridge
But I'm easy, I'm open, that's my gift
I can flow with the traffic, I can drift with the drift
Naw, never going home again
Think about home again?
I never think about home"
to the life altering and majestic:
"But then comes a letter from home
The handwriting's fragile and strange
Something unstoppable set into motion
Nothing is different, but every thing's changed
The light through the stained glass was cobalt and red
And the frayed cuffs and collars were mended by halos of golden thread
The choir sang, "Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean"
And all the old hymns and family names came fluttering down as leaves of emotion"
10). That’s Me.
Interesting guitar work, nice drum beat and percussion. Probably the most straightforward autobiographically analytic lyrics Simon has written in a long time. A very catchy tune.
11). Father and Daughter.
This track is kind of a cheat because it was originally released as a single on the Wild Thornberrys soundtrack. Still, it is a beautiful song with a great guitar line.
It's kind of funny because I remember hearing it in 2002 and thinking it was a shame it had such a drum heavy, beat-box sounding production and that it would be a perfect song otherwise. I guess I should have known a little better what to expect from Surprise! after all.
All in all, I'd give this album a C+.
It was a gift for father's day a year ago, and I have to say it has grown on me since my initial listening. While some tracks have greatly improved from my original feelings about them, some have not and they really hold back the album as a whole.
I'd recommend taking a pass on this one and go for Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints, or the understated (and under appreciated) You're the One instead.