Surprise, Paul Simon’s tenth solo album, has been an immense joy to listen to since its release in spring 2006. What follows is the Lasers In The Jungle song-by-song look at the record.
“In the Key of C”
“Outrageous” was the first song that hooked me on Surprise. I was chatting about my first impressions with someone who had heard the album before I did; I had just heard it for the first time and had “Father And Daughter,” the album’s last cut, still playing between my ears. I said that I liked it from top to bottom, that it was a mesmerizing listening experience and that Paul Simon had pulled off a lovely blend of innovation and familiarity again, perhaps the hallmark of his career. I also said that I really liked “Outrageous,” that it had a great, out-of-the-blue, hooky guitar line and that it was funny. Never underestimate the power of a quick wit and a clever line to make a point. “Outrageous” carefully navigates a fine line between self-righteousness and self-loathing, presenting a guy who just might be a little too old and a little too vain to be complaining about high school lunches and those who exploit the poor. But he’s not. “It’s outrageous a man like me, stand here and complain. But I’m tired,” Simon sings, appropriately aware of the condescension creeping in on his list of complaints, right before he starts to make fun of his own stupid habits (“nine hundred sit-ups a day, I’m painting my hair the colour of mud, mud OK?”). Here’s the Paul Simon we know and love: sharp, thoughtful, poised and funny. That he can do all that over a layer of his funkiest guitar playing ever and a swooning electronic almost-therminlike groove deserves mad props.
Like the “Everything About it is a Love Song,” “Outrageous” has its share of lovely imagery: “It’s a blessing to wash your face in the summer solstice rain” and “It’s a blessing to rest my head in the circle of your love” strike a basic, beautiful chord – the obscenity of our world can be undone through nature and companionship. And who’s the ultimate companion? Or, as Simon puts it, “who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone? God will.”
Simon’s acknowledgement of God, and with that, his own peculiar presence in the universe (“I’m nothing,” Simon told Nightline. “A speck”), is remarkably humbling, and its accompanied by a musical shift; a song that begins with a manic, crunchy guitar line ends with a slow, riverlike melody. Over it, Simon reveals the depth of his self-awareness: “Take me, I’m an ordinary player in the Key of C, and my will was broken by my pride and my vanity.”
This, perhaps, is not so outrageous after all.
“In the song when the wires are hushed”
It’s difficult to imagine a songwriter whose output is as consistently satisfying as Paul Simon “locked in a struggle for the right combination – of words in a melody line,” as he sings jazzily, trailing the beat just enough. It’s easier to imagine Simon taking “ a walk along the riverbanks of my imagination,” as Surprise’s second track, “Everything About It Is A Love Song,” unravels gorgeously. By the time Simon sings of “golden clouds … shuffling the sunshine,” we’re off in another world.
And then, the we get the first exceptionally pleasant shift on an album that continues to delight, as Simon sings of someday returning, inevitably, from creativity and peacefulness, Brian Eno introduces a drumbeat that owes more to Brit House than South Africa or Brazil, whose rhythms have coloured Simon’s recordings and performances for two decades. “If I ever get back to the twentieth century,” Simon sings, “I guess I’ll have to pay off some debts.” On the BBC’s The Big Show, Simon pointed out that, as songwriter, he had given himself an escape clause of sorts – what with the twentieth century being over. That said, “Everything” introduces the theme of atonement, which recurs on “I Don’t Believe” and “Another Galaxy.” Here, he writes about everyone’s having to account for the things they’ve done and the opportunities missed – to help oneself and others, to stand up against injustice, perhaps, or comfort those in affliction. To love and lose.
Before you know it, the music shifts again; we’ve travelled from peaceful creativity through self-reflection to disappointment: “we don’t mean to mess things up, but mess them up we do.” Eno’s touch, again, is measured and spot-on; listen to the electronic sweep right before Simon sings “surprise, surprise, surprise.”
And suddenly we’ve returned to our initial two-chord progression, though the key has changed (almost unknowingly), back from another world to a harsh December, “frost creeping over the pond.” The songwriter reflects on his lot in life, thinking ahead, perhaps to the moment when the soul is freed from its bodily master, “far above the golden clouds.” Does salvation (“rescue”) lie in atonement? If we really shed our physical vessels, return “as a tree, or a crow, or even the wind-blown dust,” can we reach a higher plane, where life is a memory, “far above the golden clouds”? Or is “Everything” really a song about creativity and the imaginative life? Lyrically and musically, there is a strong link to “Hurricane Eye,” the best track on Simon’s last album, 2000’s You’re The One, another elusive work that dealt with writer’s block, the contentment of familial bonds and the grandness of life. Musically, both “Everything” and “Hurricane” can be broken down into three distinct parts (perhaps the fact that the music travels so far is why I enjoy them both so much). The early part builds off a simple riff (the two-chord guitar progression in “Everything” and Mark Stewart’s banjo part in “Hurricane”), followed by a transitional riff (those great drums on “Everything” and the “over the bridge of time” section of “Hurricane”).
And then comes the middle part – the moment in each song where things take a somewhat despairing turn. In “Hurricane,” Simon repeats the phrase “peaceful as a hurricane eye” over and over, complementing the hiccupping 7/8 rhythm, set against a background of fuzzy guitars that would sound right at home on Surprise. In “Everything,” a manic, guitar riff (and a wonderful bassline) support lyrics about relationships gone bad, when a photograph of happier times serves as contrast, not comfort.
Finally we enter a third portion, using elements of the first – the two chords in “Everything” and the banjo in “Hurricane” – to close the musical loop. “Hurricane” includes a great instruction and ends with Simon thinking on a galaxy level: “You wanna be a writer? Don’t know how or when? Find a quiet place, use a humble pen … I’ve been away for a long time, and it looks like a mess around here. And I’ll be away for a long time, so here’s how the story goes.” Similarly, on the Surprise song, the words of wisdom take us beyond the physical world: “The earth is blue. And everything about it is a love song.”
And it is – perhaps the meaning of these two songs, the two most elusive of Simon’s recent compositions, is that creativity and peacefulness are the blessings of life, that despair and uncertainty can lead to contentment, and that the way to get there, as Simon told Nightline recently, is to sing a love song. Ultimately, maybe Surprise’s second track is as billed: a love song to the world.
Simon himself summed it up quite nicely in an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger’s Jay Lustig:
“You look back at the whole thing from some distant place,” he says, “and the Earth looks so beautiful and blue. Then you say, ‘Well, it’s all about love.’ Love that worked out, love that didn’t work out, all the manifestations of love, love that turns to hate and all that.
“If you don’t stay in the big picture and you’re right in the midst of things … well then, you feel it with an intensity that’s not at all mellow. You’re in the throbbing life of the 21st century.
“But if you go back and forth between the two views, it creates a kind of a hum. It makes a kind of a sound. And if you can capture that sound, then you could say, ‘That’s the way I hear things.’ That’s about all you could say. You can’t say, ‘I understand it.’ But you can say, ‘That’s the way I hear it.’”
Postscript: One shouldn’t write about “Everything” without mentioning the wonderful guitar lines provided by Bill Frisell, who explores the reaches of his instrument and the song like a spaceship kissing the atmosphere. A truly inspired performance.
“A tongue to speak”
“How Can You Live In The Northeast”
Paul Simon has never been much of a political writer. He emerged as a songwriter in the 1960s, when the sheer newness of the folk-rock sound made popular musicians cultural objects, caught up in an intergenerational clash that had much to do with the role of popular art in a civilization’s political expression. The great songs of the 1960s, both Simon’s and those of his peers (Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young) were political in their interpretation, though not necessarily in their intent. The Simon & Garfunkel tunes that have lasted into their fourth decade are not those that are overtly political, like “He Was My Brother” or “A Church Is Burning.” The music that lasts is neither topical nor eagerly direct; even “The Sound of Silence,” Simon’s first number one hit, skirted around the idea of social communication and political alienation without addressing current events head on.
Simon’s journey to South Africa in the mid-1980s was shrouded in politics despite his efforts to make a record that was almost anti-political. He has described Graceland as “benign,” reflecting his choice to let the music make his point gently. Songs like “The Boy In The Bubble” and “Homeless” can and should be appreciated in the remarkable context they were recorded – by a group of oppressed black musicians whose commitment to artistic experimentation transcended mere earthly political trappings. The search for freedom, hope and redemption runs though Graceland; the songs, however, do not sag from carrying any kind of direct political message.
It’s appropriate, then, that Paul Simon’s new record, which in part uses political division and rancour as a springboard to more interesting ideas, is called Surprise. The politics are nowhere more present than on the opening cut, “How Can You Live In The Northeast.” On the day of its release, only two days following the song’s live debut in New Orleans, it’s impossible to listen to the opening track without thinking of Katrina, 9/11 and Iraq. ”Northeast” returns to an idea expressed at the end of Graceland, in “All Around The World or The Myth Of Fingerprints”: that we humans, so seemingly different, have more in common than we think. On “Nightline,” Simon said, of “Northeast” that “everybody has a reason”; we all arrive in the world “weak as the winter sun,” we all grapple with issues of faith and are infused with out own personal histories.
The question’s condescendingly posed in the refrain (“How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, how can you?”) cuts to the core of the divisiveness that has gripped American political discussion in recent years. The verses, by contrast, tell the tale of a family enjoying fireworks and fireflies, manmade and natural occasions for marvel, on a 4th of July, though the image of “endless” skies flashing in the glow of tactical missile strikes is unavoidable. Later, Simon sings about the things we all share: “everybody hears an inner voice, a day at the end of the week to wonder and rejoice,” yet, tragically, “we sleep in the dark.”
The song ends with an answer of sorts to the questions it poses. “I’ve been given all I wanted,” Simon sings, “only three generations off the boat.” Perhaps divisiveness can lead to healing if we acknowledge our own roots and count our blessings.
Musically, “Northeast” conjures up Graceland’s first cut, “The Boy In The Bubble,” using the slightest bit of electric dissonance to introduce the listener to Simon’s latest sonic locus, as he did twenty years ago with an accordion and four blasts of an African drum kit. The Surprise opener lays out the nature of Simon’s collaboration with Brian Eno. Unlike, say, U2, who sought from Eno total reinvention, instructing him to toss their distinctive sound in the bin, Simon has provided Eno with enough space to flex his musical muscles without imposing on Simon’s own production.
“Northeast” flips from major to minor chords, alternating between a lovely fingerpicked electric melody over the chorus and a heavy, unsettling musical movement during the verses. It culminates with some passionate, lively playing, pushed to the brink by Eno’s electronics. A recent live performance took the finish one step further, with Simon’s voice processed to sound cold and metallic.
Paul Simon has always had the right idea about the place for politics in a pop song. You couldn’t ignore the politics of Graceland, but its remarkable how absent they are from the songs. Bob Dylan arrived at the same place from a different path early in his career: having written more on-topic political songs, he bickered with media and fans who foolishly tried to pigeonhole him as a troubadour protester. Surprise uses politics to arrive at deeper conclusions. “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love” moves form the frustrations of voting to the inadequacies and failures of personal relationships. “Northeast” takes political divisiveness and turns it into a statement about generations and familial roots. “Outrageous” wanders from potshots at our culture and politics to a providential homecoming. The inverted political song is so much more rewarding – and accessible – than something like Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President for Lying” (which is nonetheless a good song on a good album; it just has less staying power).