Rock column, Mail on Sunday, May 28 2006

Paul Simon
Surprise
Warner Bros, out June 5
FOUR STARS


From his entry in Complete British Hit Albums, you would think Paul Simon was inconsistent. Graceland (1986) spent two years in the chart, Youíre The One (2000) only four weeks. But the fickleness is largely ours. In popís small club of undoubted geniuses, Simon is the steadiest performer, incapable of the garbage that Bob Dylan tends to inflict on live audiences or the pap to which Stevie Wonder has been known to descend. Everyone has their ups and downs, but Simon swings only from good to sublime.

In his solo career, he has sought out sounds from far-off cultures, like a Victorian explorer. For this album, he found a collaborator in a less exotic location: a London dinner party, where he met Brian Eno. They had started from opposite directions (folk and art school, guitars and synthesisers), but had both worked African sounds into rock. And they are two of the sharpest brains in the game. Itís as if Matisse had teamed up with Magritte.

Enoís impact is one of the surprises on Surprise, because it is relatively slight. He supplies Ďsonic landscapesí, wide electronic backdrops of the kind he and Daniel Lanois provided for U2 in 1987. Theyíre handsome, but they donít change the elements in the foreground Ė Simonís ageless voice and immaculate diction, his gleaming guitars, fluid structures and philosophical lyrics.

Always an original lyricist, he gets even better here, covering the big subjects Ė love, war, God, parenthood Ė with scintillating brevity. The words, set out in the CD booklet as prose, read like poetry. Like poets from Hesiod to Ted Hughes, Simon draws on the natural world of rivers and mountains, mist and dust, sparrows and crows, to capture the human condition. The album has more in common with David Attenborough than with the Kaiser Chiefs.

Itís not an easy record to get into. Three of the first four songs Ė How Can You Live In The Northeast?, Outrageous and Sure Donít Feel Like Love Ė are edgy. As a statement of intent, this is effective, instantly announcing that Simon is not going through the motions. As music, itís less successful, because the songs have loathsome narrators Ė a know-all, a fitness freak and a bullying husband. Turning ugly characters into likeable music is a trick probably only Randy Newman can pull off.

Thereafter, Simon is himself again. The last seven tracks have the charm and verve of Graceland. Wartime Prayers, his addition to the fast-growing genre of Iraq songs, is an epic gospel number with some of the monumental beauty of Bridge Over Troubled Water. I Donít Believe, a more intimate epic, is the Platonic ideal of the philosophical song.

Thatís Me is an elegant echo of two past triumphs, the words of Kodachrome and the music of Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes. Father And Daughter belongs on a different album, as it was recorded for a soundtrack and didnít involve Eno, but itís irresistible: one of those songs that look into your heart, see what youíre feeling, and express it better than you ever could.

We tend to presume that pop songs are lightweight compared to fiction or drama. After getting to know this album in between episodes of The Line Of Beauty, Iím not so sure. The Line Of Beauty had some fine set-pieces, but no depth. Simonís compositions are not just radiant music, they are packed with thoughts that make you think. To sample them for yourself, along with some old favourites, turn on Radio 2 on Saturday at 9pm for a concert recorded in London last week. In the flesh, it was outstanding.