Six years ago — after more than a decade of conceptual forays into South African mbqanga, Brazilian folk music and show tunes — Paul Simon released You’re the One, a pretty, relatively straight singer-songwriter album spiked with doses of jazzy patter and modest orchestrations. Surprise plays like a sister record to You’re the One, with one key difference: production help from Brian Eno, who pioneered ambient rock in the Seventies before twiddling knobs for U2 and Talking Heads.
Eno outfits some of Simon’s most elegant songs yet with spacey accouterments, ranging from the shimmery atmospherics of “That’s Me” to the buzzy electro-folk groove of “Another Galaxy.” Despite the album’s shiny surface, Simon sounds like Simon. Over the spry percussion and electronics-specked Bo Diddley groove of “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love,” he drops self-conscious barbs with the same pained wiseass spirit that made him poet laureate of New York alienation in the early Seventies. Much of the time, though, he sticks to tender ruminations on time and tide, pledging eternal love to his little girl on “Fathers and Daughters” and working up a gospel-tinged elegy for conflict-ravaged families on “Wartime Prayers.”
Surprise‘s mellow introspection ends up just being sleepy on slow burners like “I Don’t Believe.” But “Outrageous” slides easily between hard-edged and pretty, with Simon dissing big corporations in the voice of an aging striver who does “900 sit-ups a day,” then asking, “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” The answer: God, whom Simon praises over a sparkling pastoral groove that almost keeps you from wishing the Eno-Simon collaboration had happened thirty years ago.