The Story of Paul Simon’s Aptly Named Brian Eno Collaboration, ‘Surprise’
Anyone could be forgiven for thinking an out-of-nowhere collaboration between folk-rocking world-music guy Paul Simon and arty outsider Brian Eno would never work. Those perfectly justifiable doubts made the sweeping successes of Surprise all the more, well, surprising.
Take “Another Galaxy,” a standout deep cut that's powered by this shivering electronic bed of total Eno-ness. It provides whole new worlds for Simon to explore through an ethereal, echoing guitar and vocal. Songs like "Father and Daughter" recall the sweet reverie of his work with Simon & Garfunkel, but with a more penetrating musical edge. "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" and "Outrageous," both in their own ways so sharply intricate, offered a phonic goose to Simon's post-9/11 narratives after the relatively placid You're the One from 2000.
“We’re both ‘sounds’ people,” Simon told Today in 2006. “We’re both about soundscapes. I thought he would bring an element that I hadn’t ever encountered before, electronics, into a guitar record. Theoretically, it seemed to be a good idea. And when we actually did it, you could tell right away it was a good idea.”
Maybe it's not the complete triumph that 1986's Graceland and 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints no doubt were, but then that's really a false dichotomy. Instead, Surprise marked another brave turn in a period when many of his contemporaries had long since settled into retro-grade cash-ins. Writing backward from music toward words, Simon continued to turn his own craft inside out in the most thrilling of ways.
That restlessness now defines Simon's late-career work, as he's sought to avoid becoming "one of those people who repeat anecdotes and forget they've already told you the anecdote," he said in a 2006 talk with The Independent. "I'm interested in changing the song form. That's what makes me go on."
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In that way, it's clear that these two always had more in common than their one-line bios would indicate: There was Paul Simon’s interest in exotic rhythms and textures (beginning perhaps with “Cecelia” and "El Condor Pasa" and finding its popular zenith with Graceland), something that was mirrored in Brian Eno’s work with the Talking Heads and subsequent solo projects like Nerve Net and Small Craft on a Milk Sea.
Eno has, of course, had a concurrent career — away from his adventuresome ambient noodlings — in pop music, from Roxy Music to U2 to John Cale to James. As such, they found common ground on Surprise – though it came in bursts. The intensity of combining their shared muses meant they could only collaborate in week-long increments. In all, Surprise was recorded over 20 days spread out across two years before its release on May 9, 2006.
It was worth the effort, since the results ended up as the perfect amalgam of their two sensibilities — at once singer-songwriterly, but also sonically broader than anything Simon had yet done.
Eno’s electronic add-ons tend to jump out more dramatically, coming as they do within the familiar framework of Simon’s world-weary mutterings. If You’re the One sometimes seemed too softened by middle age, here the sentiments run more fluidly between the comfy dreamscape of recollection and the angular complaints that accompany mature acceptance.
Simon was rewarded with his highest charting album, both in American and the U.K., since Rhythm of the Saints 15 years before — and certainly, then as now, one of his most interesting moments.
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