If you have been writing and singing songs for around 45 years, it's understandable that you might be seeking new sounds, and thus it's no surprise really that veteran singer-songwriter Paul Simon's new record, Surprise, melds his wordcraft (here more stream of consciousness) with the sonic landscapes of Brian Eno, king of elecronica. It works, sometimes, maybe not as well as the world beat of Graceland, but good enough for this aging musician.
Musically, there's the trademark honey voice (no synthesized voice, at least), and even some songs that hearken back to the "old" rhymning Simon (represented for me, at least, by a song like "An American Tune"), but the influence of Brian Eno is unmistakable. On three songs he even shares songwriting credits. As a result, it would difficult to put this record in the folk section at the local record store. There's a nice diversity of sound, making for an interesting record, although some songs lack a discernible melody line (thus, nothing to sing along with). But that's just my pop sensibility, my love of big, major chords.
The really interesting part of the record for me is the lyrics and the general theme of the record. Surprise -- I think the theme is joy. And that may be a new one for Paul Simon. For example, in "How Can You Live In the Northeast," after all the "how can you"s about place, circumstance, and religious belief, he sums it up with these lines: "I've been given all I wanted. Only three generations off the boat. I have harvested and I've planted. I'm wearing my father's old coat." That's humble gratitude. The first single, "Outrageous," is basicaly a meditation on civilization and its discontents, such as old age, the poor, frustration, and even the food in the public schools. And yet, even here it ends in hope: "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone? God will. Like he waters the flowers on the window sill. Take me. I'm an ordinary player in the key of C. And my will was broken by my pride and vanity." In wartime prayers (which is not, on its face, at least, thankfully, about the Iraq war, he says that "when the wounds are deep enough, and it's all that we can bear, we wrap ourselves. In prayer."
There's also the joy of parenthood. In "Beautiful," he tells of adopting children from Bangladesh, China, and Kosovo. Beautiful. And in "Father and Daughter," he broadcasts his hope for his daughter, saying like all fathers would that "there could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you."
This is one of those albums that may not knock you over on first listening. Yet, with patience, it grows on you. Patience, a precious commodity. No surprise.