100 for 2000 – #70. Paul Simon – Surprise

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #10. Paul Simon – Surprise
(Warner Brothers)

Funny how one can fall in love with an artist. Surprise came at the perfect time. I had been working my way through Paul Simon‘s entire life. And by the time I caught up, there was an excellent new chapter.

Of course, everyone knows Simon And Garfunkel. But it was in 2004 that I picked up the Complete Studio Recordings, all of Paul Simon‘s excellent solo albums on WB. Not that I knew how excellent they all were just yet. So I started at the beginning – 1972’s self titled debut – and worked my way up, falling in love with all his songs on the way. For my money, the four albums he made before Graceland are the best work he’s ever done.

I learnt the songs on guitar. I bought a badly written biography. I read anything I could on the internet and I downloaded live shows and bought live albums. This may have been the last time I really fell for one of those artists whose career spans decades. So it was with some excitement when he announced a new album.

So, I know how this shit works. For forgotten legends. No one cares for the new album. Publications like Rolling Stone and Billboard (with their misjudged sense of hero worship) would rave, but most of the world are not going to buy the newest Paul Simon album, because they hadn’t bought one in 20 years. It wasn’t even something I could share with anyone. I’m honestly struggling to think if I’ve ever had a conversation about this album with another living soul.

The album, Surprise, is brilliant. It’s his best since Hearts And Bones (ie. better than Graceland). There are some very simple reasons for this. One is Brian Eno, who produced the record but brought so much to the sound that he gets the occasional co-write. The other is the lack of love songs, which made his last album so bland. In an interview, Simon said something like no one wants to hear a man my age sing about sex. So he found something new.

Musically this record is Paul Simon in the 00s. There’s some buzzy guitar and studio effects (but in that organic Eno kind of way). The world music sounds are gone (although some of the rhythms remain), and it is far from just a man and his guitar. In fact, I think there may be more electric guitar on this album than any solo or S&G record he’s ever been on.

Amazingly, Simon sounds like he’s having fun and not taking himself too seriously. It’s best shown on Outrageous, the song that did the round of talk shows when this album came out. A great rhythm, a great song, and a silly lyric about not wanting to turn into a grumpy old man yet he has to dye his hair.

With the self-imposed no love songs rule, Simon returns to some of his other strengths. The story of the young bride who runs away on Another Galaxy is one of Simon‘s best. Father & Daughter is so sweet it became a minor hit in several countries. Then there’s How Can You Live In the Northwest, Simon‘s best political song, where he questions the questions, and if they are the right ones. There’s plenty more.

So yes, when this album I dived right in. And I loved every note. This is not a Sydney album, a Europe album or a London album. This is a Paul Simon album, and Paul and I stretch back 20 years. He’s an old friend who, no matter how much time is passed, we pick straight up from where we last left off.

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