By ALAN LIGHT
Published: May 7, 2006
IT´S a weird time to be a 60-year-old in pop music,´ said Paul Simon, whose new album, ´Surprise´ ´” his first in six years ´” will be released Tuesday. ´If this record found a significant audience, I wouldn´t be shocked, because I think it came out of an interesting way of composing and working.´
Paul Simon, whose new album, ´Surprise,´ was created with the help of Brian Eno, acknowledges that ´the songs are a little bit elusive.´
´But if it didn´t,´ he continued, ´I would say O.K., because I´m not really following in anybody´s footsteps here. I´m kind of in my own zone and really have been since I wandered off 20 years ago with ´Graceland.´ So I can imagine both extremes, having experienced both extremes.´
Mr. Simon, who is 64 to be precise, was taking a break from rehearsing his band in a Midtown studio. They were preparing for a Sunday appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the public debut of songs from ´Surprise,´ an ambitious and challenging work full of sonic experimentation and oblique lyrics. Its 11 songs elliptically convey the struggle to navigate an absurd, often tragic world where registering to vote makes you ´feel like a fool´ and conscience is something ´sticking to the sole of my shoe´ ´” even as the singer confesses that ´it´s outrageous a man like me/ stand here and complain.´
Dressed in a striped polo shirt that showed his impressively bulked-up arms, jeans, black zip-up boots and an orange baseball cap, Mr. Simon was chatty over the course of a conversation that ranged from the contemporary political climate to his disappointment in his peers from the 1960´s. Mostly, though, he was excited about his new album, a project with an especially difficult genesis.
´I usually start off with that question of, ´Are you sure you want to do this?´ ´ he said. ´Then, ´O.K., so what do you have to say?´ And that´s always part of the process, but it was exaggerated this time by 9/11, and also by entering my 60´s. I think after 9/11, the first really big question was, does this obviate art? And popular music, what place does that have? But after you go through all that, you say, let´s begin; we´ll find out, and all you can do is try.´
As always, Mr. Simon´s writing started with the drums; this time, he wanted to pursue more ´American-sounding rhythms´ than the polyrhythmic grooves that have dominated his work since the South African stylings of ´Graceland,´ the 1986 smash that not only revitalized his career but also served as a landmark in introducing world music to the masses.
But in 2003, with just one song finished (´Father and Daughter,´ which was written for the animated ´Wild Thornberrys Movie´ and was eventually nominated for an Academy Award) and a few scattered ideas and fragments, he was introduced to the electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, a former member of the art-rock band Roxy Music and producer for artists like U2 and Talking Heads. ´We met at a friend´s house in London, at a dinner party,´ Mr. Simon said. ´Brian invited me to his studio. I came over and brought a little bit of this work. He started to play over the CD, and it was a really nice combination. I think we both saw it immediately.´
Over the next two years, Mr. Simon and Mr. Eno convened four times, for stretches of no more than five days. ´I brought him different songs at different stages of completion,´ Mr. Simon said. ´He would play something that would add texture or space. Sometimes he would take a sound that existed already and put it through his electronics, change the sound and the musical implication.´ The final credits for ´Surprise´ read ´Produced by Paul Simon, Sonic Landscape by Brian Eno.´
At first glance, the pairing of Mr. Simon ´” whose urbane, poetic lyric writing set to folk forms helped define the idea of the singer-songwriter in the 1960´s ´” with the avant-garde visionary Mr. Eno makes for a true odd couple. When the album was announced earlier this year, the influential indie-rock Web site Pitchfork (Pitchforkmedia.com) wrote that though ´we like to focus on all the cool stuff´ Mr. Eno has done, your mother ´will be happy to learn that Eno has spent the last few years working under the radar with Paul Simon.´ (Though, to be fair, no less an indie icon than Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes has called ´Graceland´ one of his favorite albums.)
Mr. Simon counters that the collaboration wasn´t such an unlikely match. ´We had a lot in common,´ he said. ´One of the things that we´re both interested in is attention span. At what point have you heard enough repetition in a song that you´re no longer enjoying it? Because Brian thinks about space and length, he had the same intuition about theme and variation.´
On the skittery, fragmented ´Everything About It Is a Love Song,´ the arrangement threatens to run away with the song. But when Mr. Eno´s atmospheric washes of sound elevate Mr. Simon´s shimmering guitar on the opening ´How Can You Live in the Northeast?´ or the luminous ´Another Galaxy,´ the effect is hypnotic.
The varying tone of the lyrics ´” from the comic ´Outrageous´ to the soaring ´Wartime Prayers´ ´” can also occasionally make Mr. Simon´s intentions difficult to parse. Is ´Beautiful,´ an account of a family that adopts a series of babies from around the world, meant to celebrate or mock the situation?
Mr. Simon acknowledges that ´Surprise´ is an album that´s much more focused on asking questions than providing answers. ´The songs are a little bit elusive,´ he said. ´They have emotions and thoughts swirling through them, but you can´t exactly say what they are. At the same time, there´s a musical dialogue that´s going on: shifting keys, changing rhythms. So those elements are combustible, and when they have a nice little explosion, it´s a good song.´
Over time, Mr. Simon has adjusted his commercial expectations ´” after 20 years of consistently knocking out hit singles (first alongside Art Garfunkel, then as a solo artist), he has spent the last 20 years pursuing less-popular directions. Most of the 1990´s were devoted to his ill-fated Broadway musical, ´The Capeman,´ which was followed by a lackluster reception for the album ´You´re the One´ in 2000.
He says that although ´Surprise´ represents a return to Western rhythms and harmonies, its unconventional sonics and song structures are hardly the stuff of today´s pop radio.
´It may be that it´s just too abstract for a lot of people,´ he said. ´It may be that, as with Brian´s work, it´s meant to speak to a specific group of listeners, and that group may not number in the millions. They might number in the thousands. That doesn´t mean that you shouldn´t do it, it just means that you have to accept that you´re going to be talking to a smaller group of people.´
Mr. Simon, who is married to and has three children with the singer Edie Brickell (she and the New Bohemians have an album due out in July), expressed frustration that more of his peers haven´t maintained their creative competitiveness and musical passion. He said that while he respected Neil Young, for example, he was not that excited by Mr. Young´s newer work. He did offer admiration for the sheer perseverance of the Rolling Stones, though: ´I don´t think Mick and Keith ever liked each other any better than Artie and I did, but they show other bands that it can be done, that it´s possible.´ ´That´s more interesting,´ he added, than watching Paul McCartney ´go out and play Beatles songs.´
The risks taken on ´Surprise´ back up Mr. Simon´s words ´” and besides, he knows better than to assume too much about his audience at this point. Who would ever have guessed that an album recorded with a bunch of South African musicians would turn into a blockbuster, anyway? ´I understand that what I´m doing might not be interesting to a lot of people,´ he said. ´I think the key is that you don´t give up ´” you just keep going.´