Paul Simon, Surprise (Warner Brothers, 2006)

Paul Simon has re-invented himself musically a couple of times previously. The first time came when he ended his partnership with Art Garfunkel and began his solo career, and the second when he brought indigenous African music in particular and world music in general to the attention of mainstream audiences with the release of his seminal album Graceland, now twenty years old. So when Simon shifted gears yet again with his new album Surprise, I can't really say I found it, well, surprising. On the new album, Simon teams up with veteran producer and synthesizer wizard Brian Eno, and the result is easily the most electric and electronic album Simon has ever done. Still, Paul Simon's singing and songwriting styles remain as distinctive and unmistakable as ever, and I didn't find any reason for longtime fans to feel uncomfortable with the new sound.

Like Simon's previous album, 2000's You're the One, Surprise has it's ups and downs. The big difference is that the best songs on the new album are especially good. In the opening song "How Can You Live In The Northeast," Simon sings about how people are quick to question other people's beliefs and life decisions, yet we're all looking for the answers to the same basic questions. "If the answer is infinite light," Simon poses, "why do we sleep in the dark?" Religion and spirituality come up very often, most powerfully and poignantly in the album's jewel, "Wartime Prayers." An instant classic worthy of inclusion among the large list of Paul Simon's essential songs, "Wartime Prayers" discusses the search for hope and something to believe in at a time when "people hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars." On "That's Me," Simon looks back at his past and into the future at however much (or little) time he has left.

Surprise isn't perfect, but it's well worth getting. Paul Simon remains as thoughtful and a deep a songwriter as there is in the business, and he's still perfectly capable of creating an enduring, classic song. And that shouldn't surprise anyone.

Overall grade: B+

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