The Guardian JUNE 2, 2006 - by Alexis Petridis


Brian Eno is famously a man of many ideas. His 1994 diary A Year (With Swollen Appendices) is full of them. When not producing David Bowie, looking thoughtfully at women's bums or struggling to get his VCR to play a video called Big Bodacious Babes, he dreams up fantastical schemes: a pressure group obliging dog owners to clean up their pet's mess called the League Against Street Shit in England, or Lassie; greetings cards that celebrate how many days you've been alive; car horns that can be tuned by their owners to say you first or I'm sorry. He also suggests he should set himself up as a consultant in Harley Street, dispensing advice to the musically sickly.

The latter is the only of Eno's 1994 ideas that shows signs of coming true. He may not have the Harley Street practice, but recently the celebrated producer and nonmusician does seem to have been employed as a kind of sonic doctor, trying to diagnose what's up with ailing artists. He's currently working with Travis, usurped from their role as Britain's leading providers of inoffensive stadium rock by Coldplay. His other recent big-name patient is Paul Simon, whose standing as a solo artist has been in the doldrums ever since his disastrous 1998 musical The Capeman, which took eleven years to write, cost eleven million dollars to stage and lasted less than three months on Broadway.

The doctor-patient relationship was not without its storms - the former is credited not as producer but as provider of sonic landscapes, and the pair disagreed so much that Eno apparently told Simon to leave the studio and go shopping. Listening to Surprise, you wonder what Simon might have objected to. It's not as if Eno turned up and tried to encourage the venerable singer-songwriter to make a death metal album: his contributions run a gamut of sounds you would describe as, well, Eno-esque. He swathes instruments in disorientating echo and reverb, provides vaporous ambient washes and the occasional lovely synthesized counterpoint, cranks up the distortion on opener How Can You Live In The Northeast? until the guitars vaguely resemble those on the title track of Eno's debut solo album Here Come The Warm Jets. The co-written Outrageous has a scratchy funk feel about it that recalls Eno's late 1970s collaborations with Talking Heads.

The problem with Surprise is the songs Simon has chosen to undergo the Eno treatment. As with its predecessor, You're The One, anyone scouting for a memorable tune may as well pull up a chair - you'll have to wait until track eight, Another Galaxy. The lyrics are similarly opaque: the shadow of war and a divided America haunts the songs, but it's a bit difficult to work out what Simon thinks about either.

How Can You Live In The Northeast? settles for a why-can't-we-all-get-on? stance that veers dangerously close to platitude. Sure Don't Feel Like Love starts out with someone registering to vote, but meanders off into vague stream-of-consciousness rambling, albeit with the occasionally great line: "I remember once in August 1993, I was wrong, and I could be wrong again." Beautiful concerns itself with couples who adopt children from strife-torn foreign countries. It's a bit difficult to work out what Simon thinks about that as well. Perhaps he is unwilling to offer polemical answers to complex issues, which is admirable, but with few melodies to grasp on to and Eno adding a further haze, the overall effect is like looking at a mist through a gauze. It's even more frustrating when you catch a glimpse of the collaboration genuinely sparking, as on the gorgeous Once Upon A Time There Was, where Eno's electronics support a beautifullyturned song.

For all its shortcomings, you leave Surprise with a certain respect for Paul Simon. He belongs to a select and shrinking band among his 1960s peers who decline to take the easy route: hook up with young musicians influenced by your early work, make an album in what is deemed to be your "classic" style, reap the inevitable critical and commercial acclaim. There's a sneaking suspicion that his refusal to countenance the latter option may have less to do with high morals than it does with not wanting to spend time in a confined space with Art Garfunkel: understandable, given that Arty is rock's own answer to Fraisier Crane: he compared himself to the man entrusted to burn Franz Kafka's manuscripts on the back cover of 1964's Wednesday Morning 3am, and seems to have got steadily more insufferable from thereon in. But whatever the reason, Simon seems intent on taking risks, making every album different from the last. It's laudable, but as Surprise proves, sometimes the best intentions don't make for the best albums.