Surprise is a stunningly contemporary sounding record from singer/songwriter legend, Paul Simon. Surprise, indeed. From the very opening notes of the album, it's apparent that this is going to be different than anything we've ever heard before from this American songwriting master. Like his career watershed Graceland, on which he merged his love of African rhythms with songs about imminent and inevitable middle age, Surprise promises to be another one of those important markers on Simon's timeline: as he's embraced 21st Century technology, he also seems to have accepted his role as an elder statesman, though that doesn't mean that he's predictable nor is he incapable of being surprised or surprising the listener.
Similar to Sir Paul McCartney's most recent work, Simon is delivering rock music from a post-60, post '60s perspective. And yet the aging boomers manage to sound as vital as ever. "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" with its "different strokes for different folks message" uses the computerized "sonic landscape" by collaborator Brian Eno to its fullest effect. Produced by Simon and recorded and programmed by Andy Smith, Eno contributes "soundwaves" throughout the album while Tchad Blake, known for creating his own atmospheres, mixed it.
The funky "Outrageous," a song that specifically takes on aging, updates the polyrhythmic patterns Simon perfected on Graceland. "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" also plays around with rhythms and highlights Eno's electrics. With "Beautiful," Simon has created an anthem for all those brave parents who've adopted their children from beleaguered nations. The rhythm of life underscores the pulse of the melody's percussive sounds. Herbie Hancock sits in on piano for the somber "Wartime Prayers." And "I Don't Believe" ties together the whole catastrophe, from global warming to unstable markets and the tenuous nature of the love connection in one tender song. Simon really shines on his guitar work on this one.
Nowhere does the pair of Simon and Eno merge techno and organic sounds better than on the haunting, another-one's-gone-song, "Another Galaxy." As Eno's machines whir in the background, the hum and strum of Simon's guitar form the perfect marriage between traditional and modern. Simon also uses his guitars to great effect in "Once Upon A Time There Was an Ocean," a heartfelt song of contemplation of the day to day with a spiritual center, again filling in the action with some of Simon's beloved African styles.
"That's Me" is a cleverly structured verse that takes our singer from birth to death. On this album especially, Simon in his self-described "valley of twilight" reveals himself to be a poet, not far behind Bob Dylan, the other great man of words who writes for the rock and roll generation. The album winds up with a loving song about "Father and Daughter," a universal song of one-of-a-kind paternal love.
As the saying goes, it ain't over till it's over but this seems like a fitting contribution by Simon to his catalog at this juncture in his journey. What's next could be anyone's guess but for now, Simon has offered us this splendid Surprise.
By Daisy Duarte