10 Years Ago: Paul Simon Hooks Up With Brian Eno for ‘Surprise’
Even a songwriting legend can find it difficult to get the creative machinery going again when it's time to start working on a new album. For Paul Simon, the period leading into his 11th solo studio LP proved particularly fraught.
"I never really have anything in mind when I begin. Only what I don´t want to repeat from where I left off," Simon told the Cleveland's Plain Dealer. "In this case, it took a little bit longer to begin, because of 9/11 and entering into my 60s — which," he laughed, "could only be equated in my mind, those two events. To the rest of the world, it was one event. But in my mind, they were two big events. They made me really have to think about the usual questions I begin with, which are: Do I want to do this again? Who am I talking to? What's on my mind?"
As he had with most of the albums he'd put out over the previous 20 years, Simon helped lay the groundwork for his next release by establishing an overall aesthetic — in this case, by hooking up with producer Brian Eno, whose discography included a stint with Roxy Music as well as a series of pioneering solo and collaborative recordings and production work for a list of clients that included Talking Heads, Devo and U2.
Eno's involvement — for which he was credited with providing a "sonic landscape" — continued Simon's streak of adding a different twist to his singer-songwriter sound with each album. But aside from introducing ambient textures and a more keyboard-heavy approach, Simon felt his new co-producer would aid the creative process in more fundamental — and more meaningful — ways.
"I said to him, 'Let me ask you this, do you think I'm obsessive?' And he said, 'Definitely.' And I said, 'Well, I agree completely. But so are you, and that's really what I want,'" recalled Simon. "I think you have to repeat and think about things for so long that — it doesn't have anything to do with boredom. It's really catering to your obsessive nature, or desire in the creative process. And I say to myself, 'Look, if I just want to spend forever on this, then I will.'"
As Simon went on to explain, his plan was for him and Eno to create a safe creative space with their deliberately paced approaches to songwriting — and it worked out more or less the way he'd hoped. "That's what I wanted Brian to do as well, was to take as much time as he wanted with his sounds. I really wanted it to be fun," he continued. "I wanted him to say, 'I really look forward to working with Paul because I get to do whatever I want.' And that's pretty close to how we worked."
The result, titled Surprise, arrived on May 9, 2006 — and true to its title, it presented a version of Simon that longtime listeners hadn't heard before. That was no mean feat, considering the wide swaths of musical territory he'd already covered on his previous releases, but even as they diverged from expectations, Simon and Eno presented a set of songs that remained very much of a piece with Simon's classic songbook.
As he had with the three or four albums leading up to Surprise, Simon built the instrumental beds first, shaping the arrangements and letting his chord progressions and colors speak to him before settling into lyrics and melodies. As a result, certain songs — for example the second track, "Everything About It Is a Love Song," featuring guitar work from Bill Frisell — approached somewhat experimental territory, telling stories and establishing moods that didn't depend on hummable hooks or choruses.
Yet as restless as he seemed throughout Surprise, Simon hadn't lost his gift for pop songcraft — he was just bringing it to bear on topics and themes relevant to an artist pondering political unrest and his own mortality, with Eno adding layers of audio quirk. "Outrageous" pondered "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" before answering, "God will." "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" outlined the weight of civic and familial obligation, musing, "A teardrop consists of electrolytes and salt / The chemistry of crying is / Not concerned with blame or fault."
And as he forged ahead with new sonic experiments, Simon also made room for revisiting the past, returning to the same thematic and musical territory he'd explored throughout his distinguished career. With the overtly political "Wartime Prayers," Simon offered a sequel of sorts to his Nixon-era classic "American Tune" — and reunited with the Jessy Dixon Singers, with whom he'd recorded and toured during the '70s. The album's overall effect presented a picture of an evolving artist who remained in tune with his muse no matter how many turns she took — a pursuit ultimately reflected in the album title.
"You're just surprised at the way everything turns out," he told the Independent. "I never anticipated anything when I was young, so I'm surprised things turned out well. And I'm surprised at things that didn't turn out well. Life is so enormous and precious and you're so lucky even to have been born."
In commercial terms, Surprise continued the steady withdrawal from the mainstream Simon started with 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints. Although it charted respectably, peaking at No. 14, it failed to match the gold sales of 2000's You're the One, and none of its singles made much of a dent at radio. But at this point Simon had already accrued enough platinum records and accolades for several careers, and he seemed to view his statesman status with the same bemusedly detached eye he'd so often applied to his classic body of work.
"Most of the time you'd be out of popular music at this age. Getting into it and being a songwriter was an idea that I had when I was 14. Now I'm still doing this same idea," Simon told NPR. "It was a 14-year-old's idea. So I have to ask myself all the time if that's still what I feel like I should be doing. And usually — I mean always — I answer, 'Yeah I do. I like it.'"
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