One of the more indelible post-9/11 images was that of Paul Simon, diminutive and defiant, standing center stage during a broadcast of Saturday Night Live and performing an emotionally charged rendition of “The Boxer.” Allowing his lyrics to make the point, Simon’s bruised classic said much more than so many already had. Little wonder then that Surprise, Simon’s first album of new material since 2000, bears a subtle undercurrent of political commentary. “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” seems shocked and amazed at a nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina, while the most obvious track, “Wartime Prayers,” is a beautifully aching cry for peace. What is startling about Simon’s latest solo effort is how fresh and alive it sounds, thanks in no small part to the contributions of Brian Eno, credited as being responsible for the “sonic landscapes” found here. Eno’s work doesn’t overpower Simon’s reliably sturdy folk-pop compositions, but rather augments such songs as “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love,” “I Don’t Believe,” and “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean,” setting them at odd angles and injecting Simon’s warm, plaintive voice with jolts of life. It’s not a wholesale overhaul, but rather a quietly dramatic reinvention calling attention to a pop poet laureate’s latest work. Surprise is truth in advertising and finds the ‘60s icon venturing down some interesting back alleys in the twilight of his career.
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