home listen reviews a-z
Paul Simon

SURPRISE • Paul Simon

Pablo Picasso was still painting at age ninety-one. Graham Greene wrote novels well into his eighties. There are many examples of artists in other disciplines creating vital works at an advanced age. But when it comes to rock 'n' roll, the jury is still out. As most of the greats--McCartney, the Stones, Ray Davies--advance into their sixties, it's becoming evident that there's a gradual slide in the quality of their work.

Ever since Graceland, Paul Simon has been trying to defy this law of diminishing returns. He's embraced styles outside of the rock realm. He's pushed himself to experiment with his songwriting. For that alone, he deserves kudos. Abandoning the elegant simplicity that provided the structure of his best songs, from "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like A Rock," he's come up with a deceptively loose form that owes more to conversation than traditional song structure. Lyrics are half-spoken, half-sung. Multiple syllables are jammed into small metric spaces. Tenses are blurred, as are first person to third person narratives. When this Simon-ized style works, as it does on memorable songs like "Another Galaxy," "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" and "Outrageous" from his latest CD, it makes for an exciting listen. You get the sense that you're hearing something truly different and new.

Helping Simon plot the sonic terrain on Surprise is the professor of ambience, Brian Eno. As he's done for David Bowie, David Byrne and U2, Eno creates textures here that sound organic and electronic. For example, "That's Me" processes the classic combo of guitar, bass and drums into something like tinkling music trapped inside a blue bottle. "Wartime Prayers" is distant, muted grandeur, as if the instruments were applied with a soft paintbrush. "Beautiful" sounds like an acoustic guitar swallowed by two Powerbooks.

What ties all of this aural playfulness is Simon's voice, still supple after all these years, and with a smart, self-effacing humor. And of course, his songwriting, which is operating at a very high level of sophistication.

Though he indulged in some full-on nostalgia with last year's Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour, Paul seems set on moving into the future as an artist. Here's hoping he lives to ninety-one. • Bill DeMain

Paul Simon listen to a clips
return to covers
buy it here
paul-simon.info (fansite)
puremusic home