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PAUL SIMON Ė SURPRISE - WARNER
Record Rating: *****

Paul Simon - Surprise - Warner The most successful folk-rock duo of the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel crafted a series of memorable hit albums and #1 singles before they took a break from recording in 1970. Although they didn't necessarily intend to break up at the time, the break from each other eventually became permanent, and Simon began a solo career thatís brought him as much success and acclaim as his previous gig.

His first studio effort since 2000ís You're The One, the aptly titled Surprise is exactly that. Harkening back to the flowery poesy of his early work, Simon's determination to meet aging head on makes this his most impressive in a decade, and one that will take a worthy place in the singer songwriterís esteemed body of work. First single, the delicately emotional ballad Father And Daughter won an Oscar nomination following its prior inclusion on The Wild Thornberryís movie soundtrack ~ and sets the standard high on what to expect. He doesnít disappoint. The words as always come first for him, the music is secondary, and on the eleven songs here he brings some of his most challenging notions to the table. After sketching a canvas of isolation on the opener How Can You Live In The North East?, Simon fixes the moment when his soul suddenly takes flight in the acerbic self-assessment of Thatís Me. On Another Galaxy he's smart enough to wonder if there are more things in heaven and earth than are known in his philosophy, while the gospel tinged Wartime Prayers offers the stark epiphany of a world at war.

Though itís a deliberately insular, low-key record ~ especially when compared to the sweeping world beat explorations of previous efforts Hearts And Bones and Graceland ~ itís as eclectic as any record Simon has made. One reason, the producer on board is Brian Eno. A master of ambient sound and responsible for U2ís chart topping career, the ex-Roxy Music band member gets co-writing credit on three songs, but his presence is felt throughout. His ambient textures permeate the album without ever compromising or detracting Simonís nimble voice. The compositions are never overtly accessible or melodic; they're all tone poems.

Eno also updates Simonís music for a new generation. Stand out track Everything About It Is A Love Song has a U2 sheen to it, while Outrageous is like a lean, hungry Ryan Adams single trying to get out. The final verdict ~ an unassumingly intellectual record that feels like it was made without an audience in mind, for this is accessible pop music that any generation could relate to. Surprise requires a few dedicated listens for the songs to merge and take on flesh, and when it pays off, the results are breathtakingly visceral. Well recommended.

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