INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The New Yorker MAY 22, 2006 - by Ben Greenman
AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
The title of Surprise, Paul Simon's tenth solo album, would have been appropriate for any of his records of the past twenty years. Graceland fused rock and roll with South African mbqanga, to great effect. The Rhythm Of The Saints touched down in Brazil; Songs From The Capeman, Puerto Rico. The surprise this time is that Simon isn't globe-trotting (or, as critics would have it, carpetbagging) in search of new sounds. But he hasn't stopped exploring, either - it's just that this time, his restlessness has been subcontracted to Brian Eno, who is credited with creating the "sonic landscape."
Simon's songs have always been about their rhythms - the Latin percussion of Late In The Evening, the reggae of Mother And Child Reunion - and Eno, whether with Talking Heads or on his own, has spent his career perfecting a cerebral brand of funk. He's a strong presence here, outfitting Everything About It Is A Love Song with a skittering dance beat and using slide guitar and pointillistic keyboards to build That's Me. The soundscapes are conspicuous enough that they would be distracting if applied to weaker songs. But Simon remains the most intelligent songwriter of his generation - not the most powerful or the most profound, but the one best able to communicate the romantic and philosophical intricacies of modern life. I Don't Believe starts off gentle before erupting into a verse that somehow turns financial panic into a lyrical experience: "I got a call from my broker / The broker informed me I'm broke / I was dealing my last hand of poker / My cards were useless as smoke." Beautiful is a bittersweet comedy about a family that adopts children from the world's trouble spots. And the old crank who narrates Outrageous may still be physically fit - he does nine hundred sit-ups a day - but he's unable to endure the ordinary world. As with every Paul Simon record, there are plenty of quirky rhymes (intuition/fishing, bridge/fridge) yoked to big questions.
When the pace slows down, pretension sometimes sets in: Wartime Prayers has a beautiful melody and sentiment, but it meanders more than Simon's grand ballads (American Tune, for example) once did. But most of the time, there's a sense of both maturity and rejuvenation. As Simon sings on How Can You Live In The Northeast?, the album's opener, "I've been given all I wanted / Only three generations off the boat / I have harvested and I've planted / I am wearing my father's old coat."