:: Monday, September 04, 2006 ::
Monday music: Paul Simon, Suprise
Happy Labor Day. Here's a little record review for your Monday reading pleasure.

Paul Simon, Suprise
Paul Simon - SurpriseThe "surprise" of this album must be that Paul Simon has returned to form after a 20-year hiatus.

Considered one of the greatest American songwriters of the rock'n'roll era since his Simon and Garfunkel days, Simon's stock as a solo act peaked in 1986 with his masterpiece Graceland, a collaboration with the African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Graceland exposed a wide audience to new rhythms and musical styles. But his follow-up works never achieved the same artistic status as that 1986 album.

Surprise is a delight -- and a great comeback album for Simon. The great songwriter again hits his stride, creating brilliant story-songs addressing many of the big issues: redemption, prejudice, prayer, family, life, God, and so on. From the metaphysical to the personal, Simon paints moving word-pictures and delivers them in that famous, mild-mannered, everyman style. ("I'm an ordinary player in the key of C," he says in one track, and the self-effacing comment is reminiscent of his Graceland character, Al, of "Call Me Al" fame.)

This is perhaps Simon's most spiritual album to date. He sings about the power of prayer ("Wartime Prayers"), the all-encompassing love of God ("Outrageous") and the beauty of creation ("Everything About It Is a Love Song"). The opening track -- "How Can You Live in the Northeast" -- expresses a universalist view of life and religion.
Weak as the winter sun, we enter life on earth.
Names and religion comes just after date of birth.
And everybody gets a tongue to speak.
And everyone hears an inner voice.
A day at the end of the week to wonder and rejoice.
We're all the same, Simon seems to be saying. We all have dreams, we all bear burdens, we all seek a spark of the holy in our lives. It's a message reinforced elsewhere in the album, in more subtle ways.

Alongside this universalist expression, however, Simon criticizes organized religion and questions human approaches to touching the divine. The notion is most powerfully expressed in "I Don't Believe" ("I don't believe we were born to be sheep in a flock/To pantomime prayers with the hands of a clock").

More down to earth but still addressing spiritual subjects is "Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean," in which Simon takes off on Walter Middy-ish flights of fantasy. The protagonist of this song is someone stuck in a "dead end job" who wants desperately to win the lottery, tell the boss to kiss off, and pursue the great American dream. "[Y]ou get tired of sittin'/And it's like a nicotine habit you're always thinking about quittin.'" He wonders, "And when will I cash in my lottery ticket/And bury my past with my burdens and strife? I want to shake every limb in the garden of Eden/And make every love the love of my life."

All in all, this is a beautiful album, rich with insight on the human condition, and fertile with religious symbolism for the spiritually minded to deconstruct. There isn't a weak track on this record. Simon's excellent writing is the key, but Surprise also benefits from its "soundscape" architect, the one and only Brian Eno, who infuses each track with his famous swampy ambience. But Eno operates with a light touch. His additions enhance but never overpower the beautiful simplicity of Simon's tunes.

My favorite track is "Outrageous," a rant against growing old. Simon starts out railing against those who "line your pockets off the misery of the poor," then shifts to more personal concerns. He's grown weary of raging against the march of time, tired of doing "900 situps a day" and the battle against the ravages of age. "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" he asks, again and again, in the chorus. He answers his own question:
God will, like he waters the flowers on the window sill.
Take me, I'm an ordinary player in the key of C,
And my will was broken by my pride and my vanity.
Throughout Surprise, Paul Simon seems to be reconciling issues of his past fame and notoriety with his desire to connect with God. A pleasant surprise indeed.

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:: Andrew 10:58 + ::

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