If there was ever any doubt that the relatively young medium of popular song has grown up and is, in the right hands, capable of providing the kind of eloquence to which we would ordinarily turn to literature, it shouldn't persist beyond a listen to the new Paul Simon LP, Surprise. . Simon's new album is a thoughtful and moving meditation on the ageing process, the battle between faith and reason and whether it's really necessary to dye your hair "the colour of mud" or do "900 sit ups" a day?
Like his fellow New Yorker Lou Reed, Simon is one of a small handful who have consistently managed to pull off the tricky business of bringing the eye of the novelist to the will o' the wisp fondant fancy that is the popular song, without the whole thing crashing down in ignominy under the sheer weight of pretention. Simon is the Upper to Reed's Lower East Side, and his wry, headshaking, permanently perplexed NYT-reader schtick might not be to everyone's taste (there are probably people in the world who don't find namesake Neil's plays funny for similar reasons). But these two contrasting voices would both demand a place in any pantheon of great American pop writers - indeed, you could arguably axe the pop from that sentence and brook few dissenting headshakes. With the virtual shelves of the world's music emporia filled to bursting with 57 varieties of shaggy troubadors all with a sensitive singer-songwriter pose to peddle, now seems a good time for a lesson from one of the old masters.
This latest offering shares an air of self-reinvention with career pivot that was his 80s masterpiece of cultural hybridity, Graceland - though it would probably be asking a little too much of the current release for it to achieve the same status as cultural landmark of the earlier record. Peered at from our valley of retrenchment, through swirling post-9/11 dust clouds, Graceland, with its gentle fusion of township grooves and Tin Pan Alley pithiness appears to us now a tower of progressive US liberalism, stood proud among the rubble of the Apartheid system that seemed to crumble in its wake. It certainly wasn't down to that tiny silver disc that Mandela walked blinking and frail into freedom, but it nevertheless captured something important in the air at the time. While it may no longer be possible for pop records to resonate as powerfully, it's still a joy to hear a great lyricist pacing the ring, unphased by the confines of each 4 minute round, his array of jabs, jive and feints in fine fettle - as Simon's evidently are on Surprise.
And it certainly is a surprise. From the first sour, contrary chord shifts of the opener, 'How can you live in the north east?', the immediate response of the listener is to scrabble drunkenly for the iPod in the mistaken belief that you've wheelclicked a notch too far down the list of artists and have alighted on a previously unheard album by Pavement. Brian Eno, recruited precisely for such effects, one imagines, does his work well. But then that familiar Simon voice, a deceptively adaptable manque, floats in, singing wide-eyed about watching the fireworks until the fireflies come out, "happy-go-lucky, 4th of July". An abrupt mood cut comes with the bellicose, nagging refrain of the title. On the surface, the song descends into a plain-speaking paean to fundamentalism and the straightjacket of organised religion:
How can you be a Christian?
How can you be a Jew?
How can you be a Muslim?
How can you?
But as Simon's accusative lyric unfolds, another timely theme emerges as he asks,
How can you build on the mouth of a river
Where the flood waters pour out?
And another pattern emerges in the song's fabric. For this could be the same Mississippi Delta that we recall "shining like a National guitar" in Graceland's title track. Now washed out, it's tenuous communities divided, embittered and angry, just like the narrative voice. The contrast with those opening images of an innocent near-patriotism is intentionally stark. This is the latterday pilgrim's America he sang of on Bookends, now cleft and corrupted, it's Dream perverted:
I've been given all I wanted
Only three generations off the boat
I've harvests to deny I planted
I'm wearing my father's old coat
It's a vivid portrait of polarised, traumatised America, and Simon's bitterness is all the more effective for being reined in. The song sets up the album's key themes - the alienation of liberal America, the solemn ledgering of the good and the bad, the done and the not done, the collossal natural backdrop to Simon's existential handwringing that looms larger even than the weight of parental responsibility (seen from above and below) - light shuffling through clouds like a card trick, mountains that used to be rivers, rivers that flood, drowning what used to be mountains and that "endless sky" filled variously with fireworks and stars.
© 2006 Swipe Enterprises