7. Paul Simon – Surprise
I get annoyed when artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young etc make these sorts of lists. Modern Times was good, but is it realy one of the best albums of the last 12 months? The most interesting musical work? Relevant? Will we look back at 2006 and think of Modern Times?
Bob, Neil, Bruce, Elvis Costello and a bunch of others all released albums this year but there was one old fart that made a record that I thought truly breath-taking, truly 2006, and truly one of the top albums of the year.
Simon is a great songwriter, singer and an acoustic guitar player. But his best work has always had stunning production. The darkness of Sound Of Silence, the huge Phil Spectorness of Bridge Over Troubled Water and the world music colours of Graceland all make Simon one step above, say, James Taylor. After a couple of samey low-key albums, Simon has found a collaborator that bring his sound into 2006 and beyond. His name is Brian Eno.
The album starts How Can You Live In the Northwest? Not a political critique, but a wonderful circle of questions we ask of eachother (“How can you live in the northwest? How can you live in the south?”) but it’s the sound of the thing. Distorted e-bow’ed guitars, humming and buzzing…it sounds like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It’s a gorgeous sounding album. I can’t think of a Paul Simon album that has this much guitar, this many keyboards or this much distortion. It’s not Nine Inch Nails, but it’s not James Taylor either. Look, it sounds like Actung Baby, ok?
In interviews for this album, Simon said that now, being 64, no one wanted to hear about him having sex. So that was the challenge…no love songs. Or at least conventional ones. Fathers & Daughter is, as the title suggests, a touching song about his daughter. Another Galaxy is about the freedom felt by a woman who runs away on her wedding day. His lyrics are playful and insightful as always. The premier Paul Simon site, Lasers In the Jungle, has essays on the first few songs and it’s pretty easy to get right into them and unravel the wealth of images in there. It’s a delight!
Last year I loved Songs For Silverman by Ben Folds for it’s maturity. That’s a big selling point for Surprise too. It’s a gentlemanly album, about looking at the world of the past and future, with tenderness and hope, from an older age. Simon himself sings on Outrageous: “It’s outrageous a man like me standing here and complain/but I’m tired/900 sit ups a day/I’m painting my hair the colour of mud/mud ok?” Later he asks “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?”. It’s definitely not a flower power pop song like Mrs Robinson. That was a long time ago.
And the cover? Simon just has no sense of design. Bad album cover after bad album cover. Still, it’s his best work, I would say, in 30 years.