INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Chicago Tribune MAY 7, 2006 - by Greg Kot
PAUL SIMON PLUS BRIAN ENO EQUALS FEW SURPRISES
Eno, the sonic architect behind groundbreaking albums by Talking Heads (Remain In Light) and U2 (Achtung Baby) among others, specialises in taking artists out of their comfort zones. I'm not interested in records as documents of a rock band playing onstage, Eno once said. I'm more interested in painting pictures with music.
Such boldness is just what Simon needed as he prepared to record his tenth studio album with a typically classy group of musicians, including pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Steve Gadd. Eno tries to shake up Simon's planet of sound, but the songwriter ultimately resists a radical transformation. His vocals remain gentle, his melodies wispy, his songs oblique, subtle and a little snoozy.
So it's doubtful that Surprise will really surprise anyone. Since the successful merger of world rhythms and pop songs on the widely acclaimed Graceland (1986) and The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990), Simon has been drifting commercially and critically. A Broadway musical (The Capeman) flopped, and a fussy collection of art-pop tunes (You're The One) went barely noticed in 2000.
For about half the album, the collaboration hints at what a Surprise this might've been. Instead of seeing the sound spectrum as a flat field, Eno turns it into a deep-focus landscape with instruments arrayed in the foreground, middle ground and distant horizon. Guitars bend and shimmer until they don't sound like guitars anymore.
Eno's touch is evident on the luminous How Can You Live In The Northeast? He takes a melancholy guitar-based meditation and turns it into something warm, spacious and mysterious, with traditional rock instruments twisted into alien forms. Eno's sonics mirror Simon's impressionistic lyrics, which describe fireworks melting into fireflies.
Percolating percussion, washes of guitar and mist-like decay of instruments receding from view give Everything About It Is A Love Song the feel of a deejay's remix. On Outrageous, Simon glides into Talking Heads-like funk, a backdrop for some of his most self-deprecating lyrics (I'm painting my hair the colour of mud).
Even more ambitious is the lovely Wartime Prayers, which weaves acoustic guitar, gospel harmonies and distant drums through a three-dimensional mix that shifts from an intimate confession into a dramatic ballad and back again.
Eno keeps Simon on his toes with his subtle treatments (the shifting dynamics of I Don't Believe echo the changing fortunes of the protagonist) but the melodies rarely dance, and eventually just drift into bubble-bath stasis. Simon, erudite as always as a lyricist, sinks into a gently reflective mood that is pretty, but rarely gripping. Eno serves up subtly inventive grooves that reward close inspection, but where's the drama of his best work? Only the thumping coda of That's Me invigorates the sleepy last half of this half-baked Surprise.