Surprises, Old and New
Paul Simon Returns, Quiet Company Arrives

That date up there is a lie.

This is the column for May 17, but I’m writing it on May 21, Sunday, in the first genuine string of free-time hours I’ve had in a week. Work is really starting to cut into the independent writing time, and to make matters worse, I’m the Saturday reporter this month, which means I’ve had to put this off until Sunday each week.

I’m very tired.

And let me tell you one of the things that wore me out this week – I’ve been on Da Vinci duty for a while, talking to churches and religious groups about their issues with Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, and with Ron Howard’s quadrillion-dollar movie adaptation, which came out on Friday. So I read the book, I called people, I attended lectures, and on Friday, I went to see the movie. On my own, I’d have done none of those things – my sensitive allergy to hype has kept me away from Dan Brown the way it’s kept me from J.K. Rowling.

So what have I learned, after sloughing through the novel, staying awake through the film and talking endlessly with religious people of all stripes? Basically, that people are taking this thing way too seriously. The Da Vinci Code is based on old theories, most of which have been disproved by scholars and historians, as you can find out by doing a simple Google search. But I talked to some of those scholars, just in case, and they confirmed that Brown just didn’t do his homework.

But then, why should he? It’s a fantasy, a novel, clearly racked in the fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble. It’s barely enjoyable as it is – Brown’s prose is clunky and sixth-grade-level at best – and what’s good about it is the breezy pace and tense action that fills its pages, not the “stunning revelations” about Da Vinci and the Catholic Church. But guess what? Ron Howard took the whole thing too seriously, too, and his movie is a ponderous, overly long slog that tries to turn a simple globe-hopping treasure hunt into an Important Event for Our Times.

It’s all so stupid, and it’s already made more than $77 million, and it’s on track to be the biggest moneymaker so far this year, and I’m so tired of it. The only good thing about the movie is Ian McKellen, who plays Sir Leigh Teabing (an homage to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail: Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, an anagram of Teabing). McKellen has that mischievous glint in his eye the whole time, as if he’s the only one who knows that this movie is supposed to be fun. It’s no coincidence that the first hour, in which McKellen does not appear, is the hardest to sit through. It’s an unfortunate mix of solemn and preposterous, and no fun at all.

In this context, the “grand secret” of the Catholic Church seems even more silly. I have no love for organized religions, and I do think that the Bible was put together by politicians who probably left some things out for selfish reasons, but really – a centuries-old secret society keeping the casket of Mary Magdalene in an undisclosed location, for fear that people may discover that Jesus had a kid? A secret society that left clues everywhere, ones which even a schmuck like Dan Brown could unravel? And no one has figured this out and exposed the church before?

In that light, the reaction of the church is even sillier. When are the Catholics going to learn that overreacting like this, demanding boycotts and bans and everything else, just lends credence to whatever ridiculous thing they’re upset about? Remember Kevin Smith’s Dogma? How much more obviously fictional can you get? Remember the Catholic responses? Protests, screaming fits, anger. Same with this – if people didn’t want to read or see The Da Vinci Code before, well, now they will, just to see what the church is so worked up about.

In fact, the furor is the only reason I had to read the book and see the movie, which makes me even more upset about it, despite the fact that I was paid to do both. I can’t wait for this whole thing to go away. See the movie if you have an abundance of free time and you don’t mind wasting two and a half hours of it. Read the book if you have a free Saturday. Me, I can think of a million better things to do with my time than that.

* * * * *

Let’s talk about music, shall we? Sheesh.

Paul Simon is one of the few artists that make me feel good about growing old. I discovered Simon and Garfunkel my freshman year of college, which was the perfect time – their work is full of sparkling. naïve optimism, the sense that all one needs is a poetic soul and moral determination to save the world. It’s beautiful stuff, especially the layered Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and its political idealism and youthful joy was exactly what I needed at 18.

Even in his early days, Paul Simon was imagining what it would be like to grow old – check out the first side of Bookends, a life journey in miniature, and its heartbreaking centerpiece, “Old Friends.” He is now five years away from adding an ironic twist to that song’s line, “How terribly strange to be 70.” And his solo work has, naturally, turned to the subjects of mortality and God as he’s aged.

His new one is called Surprise, which is great, because it’s always something of one when Simon puts a record out. His last effort was 2000’s You’re the One, a retreat to lighter songwriting and stripped-down guitar tunes after his disastrous Broadway show, The Capeman, imploded in 1997. You’re the One felt like a final statement, in a way – it brought together the folk leanings of his early days, the world music influences of his greatest successes (Graceland especially), and the simple joy of just plugging in and playing. It was a nice summation, and would have served well as a final bow.

But Simon’s not done yet, and man, am I glad about that. He’s been a restless musical soul for decades now, and since Graceland in 1986, no two of his records have sounded alike. He always goes away for extended periods, but comes back with some new wrinkle, some new setting in which to couch his elegant, literate tunes. (Seriously, I know it was a flop, but dig out Songs From the Capeman, Simon’s album of tunes from the show. It’s excellent, just as good as anything he’s done in the last 20 years, and wildly unlike anything he’s done in that time as well.)

Surprise is no exception. This time, Simon has hooked up with legendary producer Brian Eno, who provides (no joke) “sonic landscape,” according to the liner notes. That’s easy to scoff at, until you hear this thing – it is easily Simon’s most sonically dense album, the polar opposite of You’re the One. Electronic drums thud and flutter, synthesizers support and caress, and sound effects twinkle in from both speakers. It’s a pretty impressive production job, even if it occasionally sounds just like Eno’s work with the Talking Heads in the 1980s.

But Eno never loses focus here – at the center of the whole affair is Simon, whose voice and guitar somehow find all the space they need. Check out the lovely “Wartime Prayers,” which includes waves of keys and guitars alongside a full choir, and still sounds intimate. Or dig the oddly funky “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love,” which homes in like a laser on Simon’s deft (and often overlooked) guitar playing.

So yes, the songs are wonderful, especially in the second half – “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean” and “Another Galaxy” are classics out of the box. But what really makes this album something special, besides its very existence after a six-year break, is Simon’s lyrics. He’s always been a poet, but Surprise contains some of his finest observations and turns of phrase, full of a perspective one can only gain by living past 60.

The album opens with “How Can You Live in the Northeast,” a seemingly odd title for a lifelong New Yorker, but the song is a back-and-forth between people from different backgrounds – “How can you live in the northeast? How can you live in the south? How can you be a Christian? How can you be a Jew?” It’s an examination of how the places of our birth and the characters of our families shape us, and about how our preconceptions mean nothing – “Weak as the winter sun, we enter life on Earth, names and religion come just after date of birth…”

“Wartime Prayers” is gorgeous, a sad lament for post-9/11 America. It opens by discussing peacetime prayers, but then transitions: “But all that is changed now, gone like a memory from the day before the fires, people hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars…” “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean” finds Simon using an old metaphor (he’s a rock) to new effect: “I figure once upon a time I was an ocean, but now I’m a mountain range, something unstoppable set into motion, nothing’s different but everything’s changed…”

One thing age has done for Paul Simon is made him less concerned about sounding silly. You’re the One was full of funny ditties, and while Surprise is more serious as a whole, it is fantastically joyous at times. Still, nothing will prepare you for “Outrageous,” the third track. It starts as a rap (you read that right) about social ills – “It’s outrageous to line your pockets off the misery of the poor” – which Simon deftly turns on himself: “It’s outrageous, a man like me, stand here and complain…” It then morphs into a lighthearted admonition (“Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?”) and then into a gospel song (“God will, like he waters the flowers on your windowsill…”). It’s a ridiculous, silly song, and one of the album’s most enjoyable.

The final few tracks on Surprise are beautiful, self-aware and content, and Simon has rarely sounded so comfortable, despite the unfamiliar sonic setting. It’s almost a shame that he tacked “Father and Daughter,” his 2002 song from the Wild Thornberrys movie, onto the end. Or at least it would be a shame, if the song wasn’t so sweet and delightful. In a way, it’s kind of perfect – an album about old age that concludes with a song about passing things on to the next generation. Some will see it as proof that Paul Simon has slipped into irrelevance, but I see it as graceful aging, and I bet I will further appreciate his perspective the closer I get to sharing it.

There’s something to be said for the younger crowd, too, especially if they’re as talented as Taylor Muse, the sole member of Quiet Company. He’s the latest discovery of Northern Records, the California home of the Violet Burning and Cush, and he did just about everything but the drums on his debut album, Shine Honesty. I ordered it on a whim, having liked a clip or two I heard, and I’m glad I did. It’s a stellar first album.

Quiet Company plays dramatic pop, kind of like a budget Sufjan Stevens, with pianos leading the way most times. Every song here has something to make melody addicts smile, and most of them feature breakdowns and buildups, hallmarks of a developed sense of dynamics. The titles are pretentious – “I Was Humming a New Song to Myself,” “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History,” “The Emasculated Man and the City That Swallowed Him,” like that. But the songs amazingly live up – they are simultaneously huge and heartfelt.

Take “Fashionabel,” which would be the first single, if Northern could afford to release singles. It goes through half a dozen little changes, floating through dramatic gateways before settling on a repeated piano figure and Muse’s aching voice. And then there’s the chorus, a soaring Britpop delight, and then comes the best part – the instrumental motif that follows, which sounds like something Michael Penn might come up with.

The songwriting never falters – the album’s sole misstep is “Circumstance,” a punk-ish gut punch sandwiched between two sweeter pieces, but even that one ends up enjoyable, with its distorted guitars and vocals giving way to cleaner piano sounds. “Then Came a Sudden Validation” is fantastic, nearly gospel in scope, and “I Was Humming a New Song to Myself” does everything Bright Eyes tunes should, but rarely do. I’m not sure why there is such hoopla over Conor Oberst when there are songwriters like Taylor Muse running laps around him.

The album closes with a seven-minute journey called “We Change Lives” that is easily one of my favorite songs of the year so far. After an unlisted interlude, the song explodes with purpose – this is the final song, and it couldn’t be anything else. I miss the days when albums built to songs like this one. This is a 6/8 march, in a sense, that sheds its skin around the four-minute mark to become a surprisingly effective portrait of death. (The final track proper is a one-minute coda called “When You Pass Through the Waters,” concluding the story with a passage into heaven.) In a way, Paul Simon and Taylor Muse are concerned with the same issues, and the only difference is age – Muse still romanticizes it, the way Simon did in the ‘60s.

And it will be curious to see how Muse continues his career, and whether he lasts as long as Simon has, and how his perspective changes with time. That’s the beauty of music – it can be shaped to augment any kind of observation or worldview. Paul Simon is still restless musically, but contented lyrically, and willing to share his vantage point at the end of his career. Taylor Muse is ambitious both musically and lyrically, just starting his journey with the same energy Simon displayed in the ‘60s. As old ones fade, new ones arise, but both old and young are capable of surprising you.

You can pick up Paul Simon’s album anywhere. You can get Quiet Company’s here.

Next week, the liberals strike back.

See you in line Tuesday morning.