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Quite a Surprise

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on May 27, 2006

Paul Simon’s newest album, entitled Surprise, was released Tuesday, May 9. His first major studio release in six years, the album features ten new songs plus the previously-released “Father and Daughter” from the Wild Thornberries Movie soundtrack. (“Father and Daughter” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2002, but lost to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”.) Simon, who helped pioneer the singer-songwriter and worldmusic traditions in American popular music, integrates synthesizer and electronic effects into his new tracks with the help of Brian Eno, who co-produced the album. Eno co-wrote three of the new songs and lends his distinctive electronic style throughout. Amazingly (but not unexpectedly) the combination works, and the result is clever, interesting, fun, and—typically for Simon—profound. After my initial listening, I particularly like the songs “How Can You Live in the Northeast”, which mocks/observes the way we bicker about geographical, political, and religious differences, and the smooth and soulful ”Wartime Prayers”, in which Simon comments on how humans react to adversity, expresses dismay at the state of spiritual discourse in the post-9/11 world, and admits (somewhat self-referentially) that he doesn’t have all the answers.

It is hard to believe that the man who sang “I started to think too much when I was twelve / going on thirteen” (on the album Hears and Bones in 1983) and had a top 50 hit (with Art Garfunkel) when he was still in high school is now 64. Although his range is somewhat reduced, he compensates for it well, in part by adding half-spoken lyrics and more complex instrumentals.

Simon first performed material from the new album on Sunday, May 7 at the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Based on my viewing of the webcast and reports from friends who went, Simon had one of the longest and most popular sets of the weekend. Touring with many of the same musicians from his Grammy-winning Graceland to celebrate that album’s twentieth anniversary (minus trumpet virtuoso and world-renown jazz professor John Faddis), Simon performed ten songs at the tribute to New Orleans. He received particular applause for “That Was Your Mother”, a zydeco-infused song ironically framed as a father telling his son how great life was before he had children, and how he met his future wife—in New Orleans of course. The song contains a tribute to Clifton Chenier, who was the most popular and influential zydeco musician into the 1980s. During the concert, the accordion part in Simon’s song was covered by Buckwheat Zydeco (Stanley Dural), Chenier’s student and currently one of New Orleans’ most popular native musicians. Simon also sang a duet of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Irma Thomas, the official Soul Queen of New Orleans (yes, that’s actually her title), and he was backed for the performances of “Bridge” and “Graceland” by Allen Toussaint (a legendary figure in New Orleans R&B) on the piano.

While pairing Eno’s sound with his own somewhat traditional singer-songwriter forms should count as minor innovation, Simon downplays his eclectic influences and returns to western rhythmic and melodic structures in Surprise. Although I disagree with Tyler Cowen (who is one of my favorite economists) and hold that Simon’s previous album You’re the One was pretty darn good, those who were alienated by the elaborate tone poems and myriad philosophical and religious references on You’re the One will feel more at home. Except for the electronica, Surprise has more in common with Rhythm of the Saints (Simon’s Brazilian follow-up to Graceland) than with The Capeman (his unsuccessful Broadway show from 1997) or You’re the One.

So I strongly recommend Surprise. In response to critics who might say that I would have recommended it even if it wasn’t good, I say: hence the strongly.

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