The Word JULY 2006 - by Graeme Thomson


Paul Simon lets Brian Eno put him at his ease...

Paul Simon and Brian Eno, then. It hardly evokes the sheer hand-in-glove rightness of a Morecambe and Wise, or even a Willie and Waylon. Instead - probably shamefully - the picture that forms in my head is of Danny DeVito and Arnie in the abominable Twins. And that's before I've even heard a note.

On first listen, many of the worst preconceptions and prejudices about Surprise - produced by Brian Eno - are confirmed. There's something about Simon's smooth pebble of a voice that is analogous to strong, dark wood and natural fibres, and which seems to grate when placed against the bang and clatter of rigidly applied technology. Laying that meticulously articulated hum over these bumpy backing tracks sometimes seems akin to sticking a Queen Anne cabinet in the Big Brother house, but if misgivings about a marriage of convenience aren't entirely washed away by repeated spins of the record, they do at least recede.

Because when it works - as on the opener How Can You Live In The Northeast? - the fit between the angles of the songs and the lines of Tchad Blake's engineering is virtually seamless, one complementing and improving the other. Sure Don't Feel Like Love works up a convincing head of steam over its fluid groove, while Outrageous is even better, the scratchy funk of the verses eliding with ease into the ringing chorus. Like many of Simon's superior songs, it's also serious minded and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.

It's hit and miss, though, because Professor Eno tinkers away even when the songs don't need him. Everything About It Is A Love Song starts beautifully, like a kissing cousin to Dylan's Not Dark Yet, before being catapulted rather pointlessly into what can only be described as Zooropa-lite, then zigzagging back again until both song and listener are lost and weary. I Don't Believe, on the other hand, is a lithe little Latin sway overwhelmed by the attendant bells and whistles stuck upon it.

It doesn't help that Surprise is badly paced. It comes flying out of the traps, with the more upbeat tracks packed towards the beginning, before flattening out. From the midway point onwards songs merge into each other and start to sound a little sleepy-eyed, the atmospherics pulsing away to little effect under washes of reverb.

But what about the songs themselves? Following Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints, Simon gave up strafing the globe for musical pointers on 2000's You're The One. The writing here is generally superior to that record and some songs, indeed, are truly lovely: Another Galaxy is soft and hypnotic as snowfall, while the solemn and ultimately rousing Wartime Prayers with its choir, wiry acoustic guitar and undulating structure, is the one song where Simon seems able to really breathe. And Beautiful is just that, simple and affecting, harking back to the bubbling, rhythmic pop of Graceland as it unravels the tale of a growing family, the series of new children plucked, bizarrely but somehow movingly, from Bangladesh, China and Kosovo.

Lyrically, the pervading sense of global unease is counterbalanced by the redemptive power of children, home and a vaguely defined but benevolent God. Quintessentially precise personal detail - I remember once in August 1993 I was wrong / And I could be wrong again - and non sequiturs are scattered throughout. Outrageous gives us a wry: I'm tired / 900 sit-ups a day, but also answers the question: Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone? with: God will, like he waters the flowers on your window sill.

The album ends with That's Me and Father And Daughter, the former a good-humoured gaze back over past incarnations, Simon defining his younger self as a land-locked sailor searching for the Emerald Sea; the latter was recorded for The Wild Thornberrys movie, though its deliberate innocence fits snugly onto this record. Both songs sound like the work of a man at ease with himself, unafraid of using sentimentality and nostalgia as a bulwark against the world's greater evils. It's this clearly expressed humanity, rather than the imbalance between the songs and the sound of the record, that you ultimately take away from Surprise. And which draws you back.