The last decade and a half have been lean years for Paul Simon. 1990’s Rhythm Of The Saints was an even more satisfying realisation of his global beat flirtation than Graceland four years earlier. Yet when he eventually followed it, 1997’s musical The Capeman and its attendant album found him struggling to adapt to the different structural and narrative demands a theatrical production place on a songwriter.
Once Simon had secured his pension fund, however, producer Brian Eno arrived to help restore him to musical health. The parallel with how Eno’s one-time assistant Daniel Lanois rode to rescue Dylan at his lowest ebb in ’89 is irresistible. It would be fascinating to know how Simon and Eno worked together, for you suspect the story must have been similar to the tale of cajoling, bullying, encouraging and kicking that
Dylan related in Chronicles of the making of Oh Mercy. It takes a strong figure to tell a songwriter of Simon or Dylan’s stature that they’ve got to do better; perhaps Van Morrison should try one sometime.
Eno’s influence is obvious all over Surprise, in the swampy textures and echoing,
ambient tones which give the 11 songs a soundwash not normally associated with Simon. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opener, “How Can You Live In The Northeast?”, where supreme songcraft meets a palette of sounds that includes Bill Frisell’s multi-layered guitars, backward tape loops and relentless percussion.
But Eno’s presence is surely evident in more subtle ways, too, forcing Simon to reject the mediocre and pushing his voice and songwriting to their best in years. Like Lanois with Dylan, perhaps his greatest contribution was simply to restore Simon’s confidence in his own gifts.
When he began the record, Simon has admitted he wondered, “What could I say that wouldn’t feel unnecessary, irrelevant, stupid?” He found plenty. There are smart lines in abundance and most of them seem autobiographical. “If I ever get back to the 20th Century I guess I’ll have to pay off some debts,” he sings on “Everything About It Is A Love Song”. “Outrageous” tells of a middle-aged man doing 900 sit-ups a day while “painting my hair the colour of mud.” On “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”, Simon remembers how “once in August 1993 I was wrong and I could be wrong again.”
The only track that doesn’t quite fit the schema is “Father and Daughter” from the 2002 film The Wild Thornberrys, a captivating melody but one which draws from a quite different sonic orthodoxy and clearly pre-dates the Eno connection. A small glitch, though, on a comeback of unexpected maturity and power.
by Nigel Williamson