Sid Smith's Postcards From The Yellow Room MAY 27, 2006 - by Sid Smith


Not your average player in the key of C...

It was 1966 when I heard Homeward Bound. I was nine years old. The fact that Paul Simon's pebble-smooth voice has been skimming in and out of my life over the last forty years might account for the sense of deja vu encountered when hearing this album for the first time.

The feeling of it already being a known quantity emanates from Simon's indelible voice as vocalist and consummate writer, and the high-visibility that comes with that kind of territory. Had it been a case of fifty ways to top up the pension plan such familiarity might well have bred contempt. Happily this is not the case.

You have to speculate to accumulate and a canny Simon is doing just that by drafting in dinner-party pal Brian Eno. No stranger to celebrity turns on his albums (both Herbie Hancock and Bill Frissell appear here), Simon has charged Eno with supplying the sonic landscape.

The Herald Tribune recently described the album as "avant-garde" which is, of course, arrant nonsense. Eno's contributions are pretty much what you'd expect them to be; a decorous coating of glacial atmospherics, delicate modulations and modifications and other colourings on his expansive timbral paint chart. It's hardly the shocking When-Eggheads-Collide hyperbole which some quarters claim it to be.

Nevertheless, there's an embarrassment of riches; That's Me flirts with Graceland's buoyant demeanour. Similarly, Beautiful invokes rhythmic motifs explored on Graceland and no matter how much he attempts to inhabit the indignant twang of jaded Joe Public narrator of Outrageous, there's no missing that velveteen purr. The looped textures of Another Galaxy plays tricks with the memory, sounding both retro sci-fi fx and a telephone call from the future.

Father And Daughter demonstrates how good he is at his craft. The sentimentality of the subject and its pop-tastic singalong chorus mask a clever chord sequence during the verse. Moving from resolution to ambiguity it perfectly complements the lyric's hope and fear factor that is a feature of being a parent.

If The Sound Of Silence was innocence lost in the era of Vietnam, Wartime Prayers is the mature reflection that the price of experience is still paid in blood. It's the magnificent heart and soul of the album. Though the lyric "Nothing is different but everything has changed" belongs to Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean, it's also an apt description of the lands in which Wartime Prayers are said.

Sometimes it tries a touch too hard. Everything About It Is A Love Song picks up an assortment of stylistic suites. Down-strummed earnest ballad one minute, a skittering drum n' bass driven groove the next, windblown in the passing train of Eno's electronica; none of them fit too well and it looks and sounds a bit too stretched.

This is the probably the exception to the rule and elsewhere Eno's contributions are subtle, succinct but ultimately of secondary importance. It's the songs rather than the means of their production that make this release a return to the kind of quality which Simon has wandered from in recent years.