CD Label: Warner Bros. 49982-2
Paul Simon and Brian Eno? Right, and if I fall for that one next you'll be telling me that David Bowie and Bing Crosby made a Christmas recording. What? Bing and Bowie did? And it's good? Wow, if that worked then there just might be hope for this shotgun wedding of Simon and Eno.
To be fair, while the pairing is odd on paper – the folkie Simon and the uber-technogeek Eno – when you consider the arc of Simon's career, it makes sense. His first attempted to break the bonds of folk by integrating world music into his style when he was still with Art Garfunkel, and each solo album, beginning with soft reggae of "Mother and Child Reunion" that opened his debut Paul Simon, has showcased his restless sound and rhythmic experiments. But the key to understanding what makes things click on Surprise can be found in the liner notes where, out of eleven songs Simon is credited with both music and lyrics on eight, leaving three songs co-written with Eno. More significantly, Eno's main credit is for contributing "Sonic Landscape." And in the end this is exactly what we get, Paul Simon songs played over, at times subtle and at others quite overtly Eno backgrounds.
Both thematically and melodically the songs here sound very much like an extension of Simon's last album, the underrated You're The One. On both albums the primary topics are family, aging and, in the most broad sense, religion. But, where You're The One offers us a beautiful, wistful version on these themes, Surprise has more bite. The opening track, "How Can You Live in the Northeast" asks how we overcome the inertia of life formed from the accidents of our birth – location, language, religion, parents – and offers no solution. And where You're The One took a jokey, satirical look at politics with "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves", Surprise finds it's most powerful moment in "Wartime Prayers" where Simon points out that in peace we speak to God of quiet needs but in wartime, "People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars." Continuing down that path, in "I Don't Believe" Simon addresses his lack of faith in God, but reaffirms his belief in the heart and family. And ultimately family is the redeeming grace in song after song – from "Beautiful" where a family is created from all corners of the globe to "Father and Daughter", from the soundtrack of the 2004 film, "The Wild Thornberrys" (and incidentally, the only song without involvement from Eno) which is as beautiful and as honest a description of parenthood as has ever been penned.
Sonically, the three tracks co-written with Eno range from the subtle – "Outrageous," which could have come from a You're The One session – to slightly less so, though the electronics in "Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean" are directly Eno. In fact, aside from the guitars and electronics that open the album, Eno works as a landscaper, taking the existing Simon structures and placing them in slightly odd backgrounds. On the whole it works well, and it works best at the extremes. The muscle he adds to "How Can You Live in the Northeast" drives the point home with an edge that Simon has lacked since Rhythm of the Saints, while the gentle electronics and syncopation of "Everything About It Is A Love Song" float the song in a completely new direction for Simon. In all, a surprising, but surprisingly good album.