SIMON SAYS NEW ALBUM TRULY A ´SURPRISE.´
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
That Paul Simon is still delivering poetic pop pearls nearly 50 years after composing Hey Schoolgirl comes as little surprise to his staunchest fans.
Critics and consumers anticipated a literate and tuneful Surprise, Simon´s first album since 2000´s You´re the One. The singer, however, was less certain about the outcome.
´I´m much more judgmental these days,´ he says. ´Finishing a song is more satisfying now because I´m grateful, whereas when I was 28, I expected it. Now if I find something to say, and I say it in a way that I think is artful and true, I´m relieved I wasn´t frustrated or stymied. When I was younger, I just said whatever I had to say. I ask myself now: Do I deeply believe that?´
At 64, generations beyond his first hits, other questions nag him.
´Will anybody get it?´ Simon says. ´Am I just talking to myself? You have to put that aside because it´s not very helpful.´
The widely praised Surprise, recognized for its ´stellar songwriting´ (Entertainment Weekly) and ´thrilling return to form´ (The Guardian), bowed at No. 14 in Billboard with a respectable 61,000 copies sold. The 11-track collection includes peace hymn Wartime Prayers, the Oscar-nominated Father and Daughter and songs that dwell on family, faith and mortality.
´I´m trying to be as honest as I can expressing myself musically and lyrically, editing out what might be considered obscure but not trying to oversimplify or be condescending,´ Simon says.
´And then I have to let go, even if I don´t immediately understand the words. What I meant eventually reveals itself. You can be too familiar with the process, which I´ve been doing since I was 15. Sometimes, instead of manipulating the craft, you have to just be the vessel through which some sort of inspiration will flow. With this record, it took me a while to map out a path.´
Before the Iraq invasion, Simon penned Wartime Prayers, then met with avant-garde artist Brian Eno in London to discuss a marriage of electronics and guitar pop.
´We spent some time in his studio and decided to combine our visions,´ Simon says. ´It took about two years. The actual time I spent with Brian was 20 days, split into four periods. We found we could really work intensely for five days, and after that it was a bit of a burnout.´
Surprise was recorded in London, New York and Nashville, with contributions from Herbie Hancock and Bill Frisell. While Eno´s textures are unmistakable, Simon´s signature melodies and poetic language are more deeply engraved. And they were usually the final components.
´I start with the rhythm,´ Simon says. ´It´s drums first, then I go to key to sound to guitar to the form of the song to the beginning of the melody. As the melody begins, so do the words. That´s how it´s been since Graceland. I write backward.´
The songs get road-tested starting June 28 in Columbus, Ohio, first stop on a 21-date tour. Simon may return in the fall, if audiences respond ´” and if he and his wife, Edie Brickell, can synchronize their domestic and professional itineraries. She´ll be doing live dates with her band, The Bohemians, who release Stranger Things, their first album in 16 years, on July 25.
´We have to figure out where we can cross paths so the kids can see us all in the same place,´ Simon says.
A restless musical explorer, Simon hasn´t stayed in one place since forging a duo with childhood pal Art Garfunkel. His place in history was assured 40 years ago with Sounds of Silence and reaffirmed 20 years ago with Graceland. And yet, despite recently being anointed one of the 100 heroes and pioneers ´who shape our world´ by Time magazine, he´s unsure of his place in modern music.
´Once you go away for a bit, you wonder who people think you are,´ he says. ´If they don´t know what you´re up to, they just go by your history. I´m so often described as this person that went to other cultures, which is true, but I never thought of it that way. I suspect people are thinking, ´What culture did you go to?´ But this record is straight-ahead American.´
Surprise had false starts and a long gestation, slowed by 9/11 and some angst around his 60th birthday. The digital revolution also gave him pause.
´I wondered, ´Is this an appropriate context to express various thoughts, given the way people listen now and the way music is exposed to the world?´ Pop music, as it´s constantly evolving, is completely different from the value system and aesthetic I grew up with and contributed to.´
Although music pursued as sonic wallpaper by multitasking iPod users seems a less idyllic trend than the once-obligatory practice of fixating on an album from start to finish, Simon isn´t demonizing technological shifts.
´The Internet is opening things up,´ he says. ´At first it caused the record business to implode, but now it´s making life easier. It´s broken the stranglehold that radio had. Downloading has made people more eclectic in their tastes, and I´d guess eventually that will redirect radio to loosen up, because it will have to compete. When that happens, you can say whatever you want, and there will be a place for it.´