Paul Simon’s latest record, Surprise, (already more than a year old) is aptly titled for me. As a huge fan of all of Simon’s work, I had picked it up the day it came out, but only spun it a few times. I liked it fine, but it didn’t immediately connect with me the way his earlier work does. Some of it was maybe because of the songs, some maybe because of the more modern production value by Brian Eno (this isn’t your dad’s Paul Simon album!). One of my favorite records of all time is The Rhythm Of The Saints, so I guess I prefer my Paul Simon records to have an international flavor.
When I heard Coldplay’s newest effort, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, that was produced by Brian Eno, I was reminded of what I love about Eno’s work (famed producer of U2, The Talking Heads, and the famous “Microsoft sound” – the 6 seconds of music a PC makes when it’s turned on). His formative music years were spent mostly on the keyboard when he was a part of Roxy Music, so much of his work is keyboard driven. Though I’m not generally a big fan of keyboard music, Eno’s approach has always blended technology with a sense of emotion and comes off as very organic.
Well, enough about all that… The point is, in hearing Eno’s distinctive sonic thumbprint on Coldplay’s new record, it made me want to revisit Paul Simon’s collaboration with Eno, the album Surprise. And what a surprise it’s been for me!
It’s all I’ve listened to for nearly 6 weeks. Every time I try to branch out, I’m unsatisfied and go back to what has become a gem of a record to me.
The record is sonically daring as you might expect from the artist who took us around the world from Africa to New Orleans to South America on his seminal records of the 80’s, but it’s daring in different ways. Just like Simon blended old world ethnic genres with new world pop sensibilites on previous efforts, here with Eno he blends modern sounds with the oldest questions that mankind has been asking for millennia. You see, as adventurous as the production may be, the lyrical themes Simon tackles here are even more so.
This is a record about the BIG questions, and Surprise finds Simon singing that it’s “time to sit down, shut up, and think about God and wait for the hour of my rescue.” It’s clear from the start that Paul Simon intends to bring his incredible gift to bear upon the mysteries whose names usually start with capital letters. I guess it’s all a part of getting older, and that is in part what this record is about, too – the questions, fears, perspective, and wisdom that come with age.
“Who’s going to love you when your looks are gone?” Simon sings in “Outrageous” and his delivery of the question makes you want to smile and cry at the same time. Of course it is one of the greatest of human fears: to outlive your usefulness, to grow old, to be alone with your youth and vibrancy all but spent, afraid that maybe nobody thinks you have anything to offer anymore. “Whose gonna love you when your looks are gone?” Simon asks and it makes you laugh because it’s a funny thing to ask. And then he even offers an uncharacteristically sincere answer: “God will, like He waters the flowers on your windowsill.”
In “How Can You Live in The Northeast?’ Simon is exploring, I think, the nature of why we believe what we believe. Is faith inherited? How can we swallow the pill that religion ask us to swallow? “How can you be a Christian, how can you be a Jew, how can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu?” Then he writes: “…we enter life on earth. Names and religion come just after date of birth. Then everybody gets a tongue to speak, and everyone hears an inner voice. A day at the end of the week to wonder and rejoice…” and then there’s the mysterious and penetrating question: “if the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?”
But it’s “I Don’t Believe” that I think offers the most pointed lyrics and observations about the nature of faith.
“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
The earth was born in a storm
The waters receded, the mountains were formed
“The universe loves a drama,” you know
And ladies and gentlemen this is the show”
I’m inclined to interpret the next lyric as expressing the sense you have when your worldview is shaken and the belief (whether religious, atheistic, etc) you’ve held dear all of a sudden appears bankrupt:
“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
Simon’s questioning continues as he ponders what many of us have wondered about the nature of life and whether it continues after our last breath:
“Oh, guardian angel
Don’t taunt me like this, on a clear summer evening as soft as a kiss
My children are laughing, not a whisper of care
My love is brushing her long chestnut hair
I don’t believe a heart can be filled to the brim
Then vanish like mist as though life were a whim
Maybe the heart is part of the mist
And that’s all that there is or could ever exist
Maybe and maybe and maybe some more
Maybe’s the exit that I’m looking for…”
I identify with Paul Simon’s temperament here with his growing list of maybe’s and how “maybe” itself can become a philosophy in and of itself (or perhaps an escape hatch or “exit” from the hard work of looking for a more definitive answer? I don’t know if that’s what Simon is saying, but that’s where my thinking went)
It’s not all so dreadfully serious, however, and this record is full of Simon’s signature brand of lyricism that is whimsical, poetic, curious, intellectual and that in the end deliver an emotional punch.
From “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”:
“A tear drop consists of electrolytes and salt.
The chemistry of crying is not concerned with blame or fault”
One of my favorite moments on the record is towards the end of this same song where Simon seems to reluctantly admit: “wrong again, I could be wrong again” It sounds like a humble confession until Simon’s wit shines through and he seemingly must reach way back in his memory to cite the precious few moments he was wrong: “I remember once in August 1993, I was wrong and I could be wrong again…”
“Snowman sittin’ in the sun doesn’t have time to waste.
He had a little bit too much fun, now his head’s erased…
yes sir head’s erased, brains a bowl of jelly.
It hasn’t hurt his sense of taste judging from his belly”
From “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean”:
“Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed…”
And: “when will I cash in my lottery ticket,
And bury my past with my burdens and strife?
I want to shake every limb in the Garden of Eden
And make every lover the love of my life…”
And the last two tracks are my favorites, with Simon singing in “That’s Me”:
“I never cared much for money, and money never cared for me
I was more like a land locked sailor, searching for the Emerald sea…”
And then musically you feel this next lyric perhaps even more then you understand it:
“Oh my God. First love opens like a flower…”
And here we see Simon’s brilliance, moving from a relatively obvious metaphor (love opening like a flower) to a more mysterious one:
“A black bear running through the forest light
holds me in her sight and her power.
But tricky skies, your eyes are true
The future is beauty and sorrow…”
The most accessible song on the record is also the most sentimental (and my early favorite). It is a lovely song from father to daughter:
“And though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed
I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever
And never leave you til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head…
I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow…
There could never be a father who loved his daughter as much as I love you”
This same song has this beautiful lyric:
“If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream
And for a fraction of a second you can’t remember where you are
Just open your window and follow your memory upstream
To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star…”
Stunning. Paul Simon writes the kind of lyrics the rest of us wish we could write.
Simon’s songwriting is unconventional and invigorating, and the more I’ve listened to Surprise the more I’ve fallen in love with the musical production of this record, too. Eno’s work is always evocative and beautiful, but never sentimental. He loves simplicity but is obsessed with complex sounds that create texture. The production isn’t overly clever (with a few exceptions in my opinion) but is full of sounds that tickle my ears in places that until now had been untouched. It’s fresh, buoyant, and original. Eno’s mastery of using discord is always perplexing to me and makes me wonder how his brain works (check out the discordant acoustic guitar parts in “Father and Daughter”). There’s a wonderful moment in Daniel Lanois’ movie “Here Is What Is’ where Brian Eno is lost in his excitement over a weave in a rug that he bought in Morocco because of the unusual combination of threads and colors that ought not go together, but they somehow do, and in that moment I gained a better understanding of Eno’s work and enthusiasms.
From the first sounds of track 1, the musical and “sonic landscape” of Brian Eno’s induced sense of modernity is indeed a surprise. But even more surprising is the aplomb, sensitivity and whimsy with which Paul Simon tackles some of the most challenging ideas to ever trouble mankind (and to ever trouble a Paul Simon record). In the end, everything about it, as Simon says, is a love song and Surprise proves to be full of surprises as rhymin’ Simon shows us that he’s still crazy after all these years and that not only does he still hear the spirit voices, but the old boxer can still land a solid punch.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".