The Scotsman MAY 26, 2006 - by Aidan Smith


Paul Simon: Surprise

Surprise? Yes, it is a bit. Because, until now, Paul Simon hasn't changed the script a great deal in twenty years. Since he successfully integrated Afro-pop with Western folk traditions on the mega-selling Graceland - an album that, for all its willful quirkiness, really did alter the pop landscape - it has become accepted that he will keep ploughing that furrow with increasing detachment.

His one stab at a departure - a Broadway musical, The Capeman, which took up much of his creative energies in the 1990s and then was roundly dismissed - was not a happy venture. When he returned to the studio, the rather anaemic You're The One was the product.

Surprise - his first new studio album since his temporary reunion with old sparring partner, Art Garfunkel - is a tentative step sideways. The results are fairly intriguing, thanks to a new partnering.

In search of a fresh approach, Simon invited the super-producer Brian Eno to work on his latest batch of songs with him - an unexpected collaboration, which is worth a moment's chin-stroking of anyone's time.

Apart from their pioneering advocacy of world music and a certain perfectionist streak, the two men don't appear to have a great deal in common. Ambient guru Eno's reputation and record shows that when he steps on board a project, he puts his transforming stamp on it, whether with giants such as David Bowie and U2 or on his own futurist soundscapes.

Folkmeister Simon takes an executive role in everything he touches, too. The pair were surely bound to lock horns?

If there was any creative conflict, though, it isn't obvious from the result.

The album was recorded in four bursts of less than a week each. Heavy-duty guests such as Herbie Hancock and the respected jazz guitarist Bill Frisell looked in on the sessions. And Simon has wound up with a souped-up sound palette, which compliments rather than revolutionises his sound.

Overall, the songs are okay. Most are moderately engaging vignettes which occasionally stumble on a melodic hook, but more often rely on the arrangement to supply the main point of interest.

That would be the Eno effect, then - providing an engaging and spacy mariachi backing to a typically melancholic Simon tale on Another Galaxy or introducing wah-wah touches, a skittering beat and even a hint of the Edge's guitar style to Everything About It Is A Love Song, a track which finds Simon looking backwards and projecting forwards, wrestling with the notion of legacy. The album's opener, How Can You Live In The Northeast? - which rather obliquely pits religious faiths and cultures against simple subsistence - is gracefully soundtracked by burnished, distorted guitars which most indie bands would be proud of, and is rounded off with a huge bank of overdubbed acoustic strumming.

However, the Eno effect never drowns out Simon's signatures. Familiar elements, such as quirky melodic refrains and African guitar sounds, crop up on Outrageous, a breezy ditty which pokes fun at society's vain obsession with stemming the signs of ageing.

On Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean, he uses his eye for descriptive kitchen-sink detail to express the quintessential restlessness and rootlessness he has been writing about for years - and does it again on That's Me, when he describes himself as "a landlocked sailor". Sure Don't Feel Like Love is a sparse hillbilly shuffle accompanied by more obsessive musing: I remember once in August 1993 I was wrong, and I could be wrong again.

He turns his attention outwards on Wartime Prayers, the mention the war number which is obligatory for any self-respecting elder musical statement these days. Simon's effort is an intimately observed sophisticated modern gospel number, which walks the line between solace and cynicism, with a trudging beat, some rolling piano lines and uplifting choral support.

Beautiful, an everyday hoe-down number about adopting kids from overseas, appears to be asking if you can buy the perfect family and an accompanying idyllic domestic lifestyle.

Simon offers a more personal family portrait of a dad's protective promise to his daughter on the closing Father And Daughter, his previously Oscar-nominated song from The Wild Thornberrys Movie. It is a hangover from another session entirely and sounds like an excuse for a single grafted on to an album which has no concern for the pop charts, only for backing Paul Simon out of his creative cul-de-sac and pointing him in a more fruitful direction. Mission accomplished, then.