You can call him Rhymin’ Simon, but Pensive, Deeply Philosophical Paul is more like it. Surprise, like 2000’s You’re the One, is light on levity and big on mortality, the meaning of the cosmos, and other existential crises — demanding stuff that probably won’t raise his commercial stock among boomers who would rather be coddled than challenged after a tiring day.
But patience is rewarded with moments of stellar songwriting. ”I Don’t Believe” is practically an album unto itself: He starts off by using the title to declare a lack of faith in anything like intelligent design, then, after gazing adoringly at his family, decides he really can’t believe love could be impermanent. After that heartwarming conclusion, he doubles back in the coda to take another doubtful swat at religion. Most artists spend entire careers covering less territory.
If Surprise seduces a wider audience than the placid-sounding You’re the One, thank co-producer Brian Eno, whose sonic upgrade makes his subject’s musings more ear-tickling and appropriately tense. Whether it’s the muted foghorn blasts of ”How Can You Live in the Northeast?” or the perky trance beats interrupting the otherwise nylon-stringed ”Everything About It Is a Love Song,” Eno finds smart ways to accent Simon’s worry lines.