When Paul Simon decided it was time for a new album, there was an immediate problem: He wasn’t exactly sure what to say — or how to say it.
“It might be that it gets more difficult as you get older,” Simon mused about the writing process. “It might also be that it was just a period of time that required me to rethink a lot of my musical and lyrical premises, and think, ‘What could I say that I wouldn’t feel was just unnecessary, irrelevant, stupid?”’
It took three years to figure it all out, and the answer was “Surprise” — the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s first album since “You’re the One” in 2000.
It’s a long time between music, but here’s a quick demonstration of Simon’s songwriting brilliance and staying power: “Surprise” comes 20 years after “Graceland,” his Grammy-winning collaboration with South African musicians — and that came 20 years after “Sounds of Silence,” where Simon worked with lifelong friend Art Garfunkel.
On the new album, due in stores May 9, the 64-year-old Simon brings aboard an unlikely new collaborator: Brian Eno, the avant-garde artist best known for his musical work with Robert Fripp, Talking Heads, David Bowie and U2.
It’s not as strange as it (or the resulting album) sounds.
“We’re both ‘sounds’ people,” Simon explained. “We’re both about soundscapes. I thought he would bring an element that I hadn’t ever encountered before, electronics, into a guitar record. Theoretically, it seemed to be a good idea. And when we actually did it, you could tell right away it was a good idea.”
Simon was a fan of Eno’s eclectic work, and they met at a London dinner party. They decided to “throw it together, see what the mix of sounds were, see what we produced,” Simon recalled.
Hilarious to hypnoticThe results are evident from the opening track, “How Can You Live in the Northeast?,” where Simon’s songwriting meets Eno’s wall of sounds to almost hypnotic effect. “Outrageous” is the hilarious tale of a middle-aged man doing 900 sit-ups a day while “painting my hair the color of mud.”
And there’s the autobiographical “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love,” with its lyric about a man who remembers how “once in August 1993 I was wrong/And I could be wrong again.”
“That’s pretty much me,” Simon confessed with a soft chuckle. “You think of it. It’s hilariously arrogant.”
Simon handles most of the guitar duties, and he’s joined on various songs by guests Herbie Hancock and Bill Frisell. The album also features his Oscar-nominated song “Father and Daughter” from “The Wild Thornberrys.”
Simon will play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 7 in the flood-ravaged city that remains close to his heart. His Children’s Health Fund, a charity co-founded by Simon in 1987, has been working in the Gulf area to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“New Orleans is a place that I have a lot of affection for,” said Simon. “I have a lot of friends who live there. ... It makes me look forward to going to New Orleans even more than I normally would just to play and hang out.”