For at least one more year, the march of the Baby Boomers continues. Predictions of the demise of the labels which bear their words proliferate, and a few of the artists themselves are bound to check out sooner or later, although this month it seems to be their supporting keyboardists (Billy Preston and Vince Welnick) who are having the worst luck.
Nonetheless, CDs continue to arrive as spring 2006 turns to summer. Bruce Springsteen, who has suddenly gotten as casual and prolific in his record release scheduling as Dylan once was, offers up a set of Seeger covers which is either a celebration of American resilience or a cheerful irrelevancy. (Ask me in a few months). Neil Young, meanwhile, has hardly waited for Tower to take last falls Harvest IV (or was it V?) out of the new release bins to offer up a new set of Iraq songs, leaving this listener heartened to find that it isnt just an Illinois thing to fantasize about Barack Obama becoming the next president, but also wishing Young had noticed that hes still using the same melody he assigned to his Johnny Rotten tribute back in 1978.
And then there is Paul Simon and Surprise. My parents have their stories about him the 1969 Simon & Garfunkel college appearance they saw a year before their marriage and the 2003 arena reunion show they caught a few years after my brother and I were out of the house. I have my Boomer-offspring stories, too learning the word jubilation from the outchorus of Cecilia, thinking for a few innocent years that the people in the lines Couple in the next room bound to win a prize/Theyve been going at it all night long were trying to win some call-in radio contest, having tickets to a 2001 Simon/Brian Wilson double bill which I had to sell when my band went on the road that month.
Simon has managed to be both of his time and somehow detached from it. While Bill Clinton is the guy who didnt inhale, Simon is the guy who did so once or twice and now seems genuinely conflicted about it. At first he was the earnest songpoet who came up with Sounds Of Silence, but soon afterwards it became more common for his songs to make suggestions and then gingerly back away from them. He and Garfunkel sang Jesus loves you more than you will know in a chorus, and somehow no one either got angry about the sarcasm or mistook it for Spirit In The Sky. Its fitting, then, that Simon has now discovered Brian Eno, the man who made groundbreaking discoveries in the 70s and 80s about how little music you could put in your music.
My second-generation Boomer perspective on Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints is that they were great driving music. Youre The One, Simons last record, also fit that bill well, with similar rolling grooves, but was clearly less of the same, which may explain why it got little attention. With Eno, the price of change is that the grooves are gone. Instead, there are the canned beats and small, squiggly sounds characteristic of recent Eno outings, and there is a lot of space, with Simon left on his own to occupy it.
The Eno connection will make critics sit up, but there is also the rest of the world to consider, which may be why Warners is hyping Surprise as the perfect Fathers Day gift in Time. My nightmare is that they may have already prepared commercials for the album featuring the opening of Outrageous, in which Simon offers routine Bush-bashing lines about lin[ing] your pockets off the misery of the poor over a funk riff which sounds like a 64-year olds idea of whats on the radio now. By the time the chorus arrives, though, its clear that protest is less of a priority for the 64-year old than his concerns about whos gonna love you when your looks are gone. Simons modesty is appealing. Would Young or Springsteen, much less the younger guys, write and sing a line like Im trying to tap into some wisdom/Even a little drop will do?
As he did on Youre The One, Simon spends most of Surprise in elegant but uneventful reflection. At best, though, the little details and suggestions work. Beautiful puts together a calm, acoustic-centered groove to convince the listener that a hard-partying snowman has found a shot of redemption (to use Simons old phrase) by adopting babies from China and Kosovo. In I Dont Believe, Simon is honest enough to offer a dismaying call from his broker as an example of lifes challenges. Sure Dont Feel Like Love is an entry in the surprisingly large number of silly Simon songs, not as engagingly so as past examples such as I Know What I Know (those African choruses know how to have fun), but containing perhaps the best line of the lot: I remember once in August 1993, I was wrong, and I could be wrong again. The closer, Father & Daughter, tacked on from a soundtrack a few years back, is facile, but does the job. A perfect Fathers Day gift.
The Boomers may not be offering their most grabbing work, but they have not left the game. Towards the end of the summer, meanwhile, there reportedly will be a new offering from Bob Dylan, whose record release schedule is now as irregular as Springsteens used to be. It has a tough act to follow, given the amount of praise he got for his last record which appeared onSeptember 11, 2001.