Collaboration to Distraction
John S. Hilliard | Washington, D.C. United States | 03/15/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
""Everything about it is a love song" Paul Simon sings. Everything about this review is for the love of is his amazing music. And too for his songs, it's true, they are all about love, whether love of life, wife, children or God. Simon's lyrics remain wonderful and perhaps keep getting better and better as he gets older.
But how can one surpass or equal the luminous masterpiece of his "You're the One"? Forgive me, but this album does not surpass nor even equal it. Why? The vocals are overbalanced. (Nothing about the music is weak, only it's presentation.) Balance, in this case, refers to the musical term, a technical goal, wherein the parts and players must never cover the most important lines or voices. "Surprise" is simply very badly balanced (mixed), maybe the worst mix of his career. It is a shame too, because Simon has composed some of his finest songs to date....in terms of melodies and lyrics. One action alone would improve the album to four stars or better: delete the drums. (The greatest sin of recent Rock-Pop music is overuse of the drums. Many a song would rise in both quality and popularity if the artists and producers were bold enough to learn to leave off drums on occasion. The typical Rock-Pop drumming pattern is mind-numbing at best, almost always extremely boring and too heavy. Steve Gadd's work is usually the exception to this. Since he was classically trained at Eastman and has had much Jazz experience, he possesses a fine sense of what is tasteful and innovative in percussive collaborations.) When an artist collaborates, it usually occurs to improve or vary an end product and/or to work with another individual who is admired. The problem with collaboration is that it is collaborative. It often, but not always, weakens the initial vision. In this case Simon's collaborators for "Surprise" have significantly weakened his music. Brian Eno, Bill Frisell and various drummers have contributed (perhaps because of the mix) extremely heavy backup accompaniments to his mellifluous natural voice. So much so that overbalancing occurs. The drums, guitar solos and electronic tracks are simply too loud and often distracting from the meaning, melody and harmonic support of the lyrics. (Another of the reviewers above has also spoken of this problem.) Most of the album is just too noisy. Eno and Frisell, well-established figures, need us to know they are involved with this album of Paul Simon's...and this is a mistake. The majority of the time their additions cover over the subtleties of Simon's exquisite musical gifts. (However, there are moments where Eno's electronics do very nice things and add to the beauty of Simon's songs; like the harpsichord sample for instance.)
But imagine if this album had only Simon and his guitar or the tastefully discrete backup group of "You're the One" instead. Then it would garner five stars from this reviewer. The song "Father and Daughter" is a masterpiece, the closest thing we get to heaven on this album of too-loud disturbing accompaniments. Imagine it with the exquisite not-in-your-face light drumming style of the outstanding Steve Gadd instead. Or even better, with Simon and his guitar alone.
Paul Simon's words make me cry for their beauty. The over-balanced mix makes me cry for the ruin and waste it causes.
Brian Eno Influnced and Brian Eno Ruined
Glenda | 05/03/2010
(2 out of 5 stars)
"Artists continue to flock to Brian Eno to produce and co-write their albums. And again Brian Eno doesn't disappoint - he ruins another album with the same old tired techno sound."