Among the most popular artists and greatest songwriters of our time, Paul Simon returns with his first album in six years and the album titled Surprise is exactly that. First, three songs were co-written with electronic music guru Brian Eno; second, the other songs are straightforward, wonderfully American pop. Surprise is a pleasant surprise for Simon fans.
Since severing his epochal partnership with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon's solo career been characterized by restless reinvention. But while it's easy to see such disparate, cross-cultural collaborations as Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints as Simon's quest for new creative partnerships, beneath them lies a more crucial willingness to continually challenge the very assumptions and craft of his own songwriting. Six years after his sublime, underappreciated You're the One Simon has pushed that sensibility into a rewarding, if equally unlikely, partnership with Brian Eno. Yet the former Roxy Music texturalist cum contemporary producer/sound conjurer supreme (aided by such stellar sidemen as Bill Frisell, Herbie Hancock and Steve Gadd) offers barely half the "surprises" here.
The playful "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" argues Simon can still beckon his more traditional pop muse at will. Yet some of his best work here turns as much on hypnotic, if no less politically pointed, quasi-spoken word pieces (like "Wartime Prayers" and the gripping, post 9/11 rumination "How Can You Live in the Northeast?") as traditional songcraft. Eno is credited with providing "Sonic Landscape" to Simon's production, but also co-wrote three tracks, infusing "Another Galaxy" with contrasting doses of bracing energy and ethereal elegance, while seasoning the more traditional folk musings of "Once Upon a Time There Was An Ocean" with infectious electro-funk rhythms. "Outrageous," their best full collaboration, suggests that while Eno and Simon may approach world music - and indeed most pop forms - from polar extremes, the common ground they find is truly elevated. In an era when many of his peers are content to craft mere artistic comebacks, Simon's re-emergence here is a bold, compelling step forward. --Jerry McCulley