The obvious surprise of Surprise, Paul Simon's tenth solo album and his first since 2000's underrated You're the One, is that the singer/songwriter has enlisted Brian Eno as his collaborator. At first glance the pairing seems odd, even awkward, since they seem to come from opposing backgrounds: Simon the folk-rock troubadour and Eno the avant-garde art rock adventurist. Dig a little deeper, and the similarities do surface. For one, there is the mutual shared interest in world music -- most evident in Eno's productions/collaborations with Talking Heads at the turn of the '70s and on Simon's 1986 Graceland and its 1990 follow-up, The Rhythm of the Saints, but there are undercurrents running as far back as Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia." But more than any other singer/songwriter of his generation, Paul Simon has demonstrated a keen interest in having his albums sound unique and distinct from each other, using each album as an opportunity to explore a different sonic characteristic, so working with a sonic landscaper (as his back-cover credit on Surprise calls him) is not out of character. Similarly, Eno has not been entirely adverse to pop, either, as his ongoing collaboration with U2 proves, not to mention his productions for James or even the flamboyant pop of such early Roxy Music singles as "Virginia Plain." So, their collaboration here is unexpected, but not unnatural -- in fact, it's anything but unnatural, since Surprise is as seamless and graceful as Graceland, which it resembles greatly in how it blends a new sound with Simon's songs. But where Graceland found Simon writing around existing rhythm tracks, the opposite is true here: Eno fills in the space behind songs, creating an evocative, dream-like bed for Simon's words, which, more than ever, scan equally well as poetry as they do song lyrics. Simon was shifting toward this direction on You're the One, but he pushes even harder here, largely abandoning familiar song structures -- only two cuts here have something resembling a conventional chorus, and one of those is "Father and Daughter," originally released on the Wild Thornberrys soundtrack and the only track not treated by Eno -- for elliptical, winding songs that demand attention.
These are songs that cry out for the kind of cinematic sounds Eno brings to them, since he helps give them structure, momentum, and emotional weight, and his "sonic landscapes" do this precisely, following the contours of Simon's words and enhancing his meaning. And while Surprise glides along easily, thanks both to Eno's seamless work and the warmth of Simon's voice, it's an album meant to be listened to closely, and it pays back that effort handsomely. With repeated plays, Simon's songs don't seem as open-ended, and there's more to discover within Eno's production, particularly in how it plays off Simon's recurring themes of faith, aging, fatherhood, and getting by in George W. Bush's U.S.A. But this is not by any stretch a protest record; "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" and "Wartime Prayers" are about the uneasiness of living in the post-9/11 America, yet they're not statements of outrage, they're about the emotional toil of the time, and they have counterparts in the wearied narrators of "Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean" and "Outrageous." It adds up to a bittersweet undercurrent that runs through Surprise, not unlike the melancholy threaded throughout Hearts and Bones, which this also resembles in its overall introspective tone and arty bent, but this is hardly a one-dimensional record; there is gentle hope and wry humor as well, giving this music a rich elegance that makes it stand among Simon's best work. Unlike such deservedly praised comeback albums from some of his peers -- such as Dylan's Love and Theft, the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang, Paul McCartney's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard -- Simon doesn't achieve his comeback by reconnecting with the sound and spirit of his classic work; he has achieved it by being as restless and ambitious as he was at his popular and creative peak, which makes Surprise all the more remarkable.