From a certain angle, Paul Simon's career can look somewhat safe, as it progresses through folk, folk-rock, pop-psychedelia, singer-songwriter confessionals, and worldbeat, all while staying in step with MOR audiences. But look more closely and Simon becomes a musical explorer, seeking to fill out literate story-songs and character sketches with snatches of everything from reggae to Philip Glass. His songs rarely change, but Simon continually challenges his unerring sense of melody by introducing elements that comment on and sometimes work against the composition.
So it shouldn't be a shock that Paul Simon would collaborate with "sonic landscaper" Brian Eno for Surprise, an unusual album that's also—no shock—one of the better-sounding records this year. But those who aren't already Simon fans still needn't run to the record store. Surprise contains all the quirks and clunks of Simon's post-Graceland work, including a vocal style that shifts from conversational to crooning (with occasional stabs at something like rap), and a set of lyrics that work in cultural signifiers and Simon's personal neuroses. (Steer clear if you can't abide lines like "A teardrop consists of electrolytes and salt / The chemistry of crying is not concerned with blame or fault.")
Of course, Simon's perpetual willingness to weave together his current obsessions—musical and social—makes his work more distinctive than that of his wispy soft-rock peers. When Simon sings about dealing with catastrophe in "How Can You Live In The Northeast?," or about runaway brides in "Another Galaxy," he makes his thoughts about what's happening right now part of a broader philosophy. And Eno's rich backgrounds help the cause. Throughout Surprise, Simon's lilting melodies step around Eno's factory clank, like some lithe woodland creature scurrying from a bulldozer. Which is probably how Simon imagines himself. Whether he's being self-aggrandizing or not, Surprise's pervasive feeling of woe and caution makes it Simon's first album since Graceland where the sound isn't just a gimmick.