Album Reviews: Surprise by Paul SimonPermit me to be the eight zillionth critic to state the obvious about Paul Simon's latest: Despite its title, there are no big surprises on Surprise. Yes, Brian Eno is on board to provide "sonic landscapes," but this album is essentially of a piece with Simon's last effort, 2000's You're the One. It's a meticulously crafted, insular collection of songs about growing old, raising children, being worried about the state of the world, but for the most part content -- songs, in other words, about being Paul Simon, which will probably only be of interest to dedicated Paul Simon fans.
For those fans, Surprise is full of small pleasures, mainly to be had courtesy of Simon's typically vivid lyrics and the outstanding musicianship of his sidemen -- not so much Eno, whose contributions are virtually subliminal, but a rotating rhythm section led by veteran session drummer Steve Gadd, bassists Pino Palladino, Alex Al and Leo Abrahams, and percussionist Jamey Haddad. On tracks that let these guys really flex their muscles, like "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" and "Once Upon Time There Was an Ocean," Surprise almost sounds like a stripped-down version of Graceland, with intricate rhythms that hold down Simon's rather wispy melodies. It's those melodies, combined with Simon's featherweight vocals, that keep Surprise from being anything more than a connoisseur's record, an essential acquisition for fans of vintage Simon solo albums like Still Crazy After All These Years, but with little to lure back those of us who lost track of Simon's career after The Rhythm of the Saints. Only on the album's closing track, "Father and Daughter" -- which was originally featured in the animated children's film The Wild Thornberries -- does Simon achieve the kind of gravity-defying performance that has made his best work so endearing. -- Andy Hermann
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