Hogan's Alley

Friday, May 12, 2006

Paul Simons "Surprise" - The Return Of The Artist

After a delay of several years, Paul Simon has released a new studio album called "Surprise". Far from providing a surprise, Simon has given his fans yet another in a long series of magnificent musical treats. The kind that have typified his career.

I think it is not overstating Simon's importance in the popular music of our age. He is and has been the voice of his generation for over forty years. At age 64, pater familias of a family of three young children with his wife of 14 years, Edie Brickell, Simon now speaks to us with the voice of a mature artist.

Compare the way Paul Simon deals with the realities of a post-9/11 world with the angry shrieks of Neil Young's latest effort. Here is a passage from "Wartime Prayers":

Prayers offered in times of peace are silent conversations,
Appeals for love or love's release
In private invocations
But all that is changed now,
Gone like a memory from the day before the fires.
People hungry for the voice of God
Hear lunatics and liars
Wartime prayers, wartime prayers
In every language spoken,
For every family scattered and broken.
And here is the closing verse:

Because you cannot walk with the holy,
If you're just a halfway decent man.
I don't pretend that I'm a mastermind
With a genius marketing plan.
I'm trying to tap into some wisdom,
Even a little drop willdo.
I want to rid my heart of envy
And cleanse my soul of rage
Before I'm through.
A mother murmurs in twilight sleep
And draws her babies closer.
With hush-a-byes for sleepy eyes,
And kisses on the shoulder.
To drive away despair
These are lyrics that speak to the quiet center of our souls, scarred as we are by the fear, anger and despair of our times. This is a song that people will recall in times of conflict for decades, if not centuries, to come.

The album is full of such moments of beauty. In "How Can You Live In The Northeast?" he contemplates an America riven by the labels and regions of our lives, no longer, perhaps a nation.

How can you live in the Northeast?
How can you live in the South?
How can you build on the banks of a river
When the flood water pours from the mouth?

How can you be a Christian?
How can you be a Jew?
How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu?
How can you?

Weak as the winter sun, we enter life on earth.
Names and religion comes just after date of birth.
Then everybody gets a tongue to speak,
And everyone hears an inner voice,
A day at the end of the week to wonder and rejoice.

If the answer is infinite light
Why do we sleep in the dark?
How do we find a sane place for our lives in the tumult of modern life? In "I Don't Believe" Simon suggests the following:

Oh, guardian angel
Don't taunt me like this, on a clear summer evening as soft as a kiss
My children are laughing, not a whisper of care
My love is brushing her long chestnut hair
I don't believe a heart can be filled to the brim
Then vanish like mist as though life were a whim

Maybe the heart is part of the mist
And that's all that there is or could ever exist
Maybe and maybe and maybe some more
Maybe's the exit that I'm looking for

He continues:

Acts of kindness
Like rain in a draught
Release the spirit with a whoop and a shout
I don't believe we were born to be sheep in a flock
Towards the end of the album, Paul contemplates his, and by extension our, reaction to the inevitable passages of life and death that those of us of a certain age must face and absorb. The song is called, "Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean".

I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean
But now I'm a mountain range
Something unstoppable set into motion
Nothing is different, but everything's changed
But then comes a letter from home
The handwriting's fragile and strange
Something unstoppable set into motion
Nothing is different, but everything's changed

The light through the stained glass was cobalt and red
And the frayed cuffs and collars were mended by haloes of golden thread
The choir sang, "Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean"
And all the old hymns and family names came fluttering down as leaves of emotion
Happily, the album includes as its last track Simon's "Father and Daughter", which he recorded for the soundtrack of the children's movie, "The Wild Thornberrys" and speaks as clearly as any song the devotion of fathers to the happiness of their children. As I said, this is the work of a mature man, not for most kids. The sensitive ones will get it.

Finally, the music. The melodies are beautiful, each fits the lyrical tone of the song. The arrangements are classic, but with a twist. Simon's collaborator on this album is the British electronica veteran, Brian Eno. The pairing works. Eno provides a spark without overwhelming Simon. The instrumentation is simple, featuring Simon on almost all the guitar parts and a small band, which includes the sturdy Simon regular, Steve Gadd, on drums.

Even the art work fits wonderfully. The lyrics for each song are accompanied by a unique photograph. The photos are each wonderful in their own merit, yet each beautifully complements the song illustrated.

Don't count on the kids to push this masterpiece to the top of the charts. If you have ever enjoyed the work of Paul Simon, get out there and buy a copy. But don't just download this album from ITunes or whoever, do your self a favor and pick up a hard copy. You will treasure the experience of holding this one in your hands as you listen again and again.